Tropic Sprockets / Elvis

By Ian Brockway 

The virtuosic Baz Luhrmann directs “Elvis,” a stunning, comprehensive biopic that takes in the full measure of the rock icon. The film is frenetic and eye-popping but it is also thoughtful, melancholy, and solidly poignant.

[“Elvis” is screening at the Tropic Cinema all week, with multiple shows daily. Check https://www.tropiccinema.com/movie/elvis/ for showtimes.]

At the start, Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is sick and riddled with guilt, wondering if he is responsible for the death of The King.

Parker was hell-bent to sign him in the early days as Elvis was a young kid with clear skin, babyish eyes and boyish looks. 

Elvis (Austin Butler) is consumed by music which moves through him as electric current. The young man is a shy boy but he is also an antenna seeking out the next sound.

His first hit is “That’s All Right Mama” by Arthur Crudup, a black musician and a master of Delta blues. Contrary to popular opinion, Elvis was not racist. He championed and revered black singers.

On stage he wears a pink suit and mascara and has a pretty face. When the music hits him, his body becomes a tuning fork of sexuality. Women and men are paralyzed by his hips. Law enforcement and the media become nervous. 

Colonel Tom Parker knows power when he sees it and he is driven to pounce. Like a Halloween figure out of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, Parker is a devil figure appearing to Elvis at a carnival, waiting for him to give consent.

Since his first concern is his mother (Helen Thomson), Elvis hires Parker as manager.

Elvis becomes increasingly popular with his gyrating and spastic moves combined with his strong and at times, melting voice. Parker demands that he become more family orientated as the press labels him a delinquent and a troublemaker, and in derogatory fashion, part of the black community. Understandably Elvis is enraged.

To restore himself, he immerses himself in Beale Street and black music. He hears Little Richard and forges a friendship with BB King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.).

The center of the film analyzes self-expression, censorship and the groundbreaking style of Elvis as a singer and dancer balanced against the commercialism and control of Colonel Parker and his endless pursuit of money.

Elvis wants to sing to express himself, but the pull of fame, symbolized by Parker, eats him up.

One gets the feeling that Elvis was happiest singing for his mother. At her death, he is inconsolable and buries his face in his mother’s clothes. The gospel child of deliverance exists within the detached and golden android of the adult man.

The chase for fame—not Elvis’s real intent according to the film— fractures his marriage with Priscilla (Olivia De Jonge).

Elvis sings on and thrusts, through the scourge of drugs, guns and paranoia. Though he is becoming worn out and tired, fans persist and witness his glare, akin to a religious experience.

Austin Butler is almost supernatural in his performance, not only as a young man but through all of Elvis’s incarnations. One of the last moments of Elvis shows him sweating at the piano as a glittering martyr, while Parker says that Elvis “died for love,” a crooning Christ in leather giving his all.

As Colonel Parker, Tom Hanks gives a shape-shifting performance, becoming sinister, conniving, manipulative, and an empathetic friend all at once. He is both a fond grandfather and a greedy jack-o’-lantern out for his pound of flesh at Christmas.

Though the glitter and black velvet of Elvis is well known, at rock bottom he was a grassroots rockabilly man of soul who became an icon. Elvis wore mascara, but so did David Bowie and Lou Reed. All were otherworldly beings, humans and students of locomotion, using their very bodies to create.

“Elvis” is a thorough portrait of the person of Elvis, a shy kid from Mississippi who wanted to make music to thrill and please people. The tragedy is that he made a deal with the devil in the form of Colonel Parker to protect his mother, ultimately seduced by the fleeting promise of Shangri-La. 

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com

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