Most of us have a general idea of the life of Elvis Presley. He was a country boy who introduced black music to mainstream white America, opening a rhythmic Pandora’s box that no one has ever been able to close. He was flawed yet gloriously gifted, and his life was proof one man could have it all but still be lonely, isolated, and tragic. But like any historical figure, it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction as decades pass. Such is the case with Baz Luhrmann‘s Elvis, the latest music biopic to hit the big screen. Like others before it, the film weaves a narrative designed to celebrate the life of the subject, and it’s told in such a glitzy, glamorous way we accept without question it’s all 100% accurate. It isn’t. But that doesn’t matter. The film rarely deviates from accepted Presley mythology and delivers a spectacle, a sensory feast of visuals, music, and grand storytelling.
It should be pointed out here that this film has a different perspective than other Elvis treatments like the 1979 Kurt Russel TV movie and the 1990 Michael St. Gerard television series. In those, the primary focus was on Elvis. In the latest film, Presley’s life story is seen through the eyes of his long-time manager Col. Tom Parker, a carnival barker who knew how to promote freakshows for optimum profit – his – and who controlled and cheated his client out of millions. This perspective gives us permission to pity Elvis as a victim – both of himself and Parker – and not just someone who had it all and pissed it away. It humanizes the singer in a way no other version has.
But some people are having none of that. Though the film is getting better reviews and a higher box office take than most would expect, some critics seem offended people actually like it. Read between the lines of several negative reviews, and you’ll get the distinct impression you’ve been somehow duped into enjoying this movie because the subject matter has become such a staple in Americana. Remember, professional film critics’ opinions are no more or less valid than yours; they just get paid to express theirs.
The fan community of anything or any person, fictitious or real, on the other hand, is often a contentious circle of infighting. Self-proclaimed experts and novices battle each other over the smallest details to prove themselves the supreme holder of sacred knowledge – or at least most likely to succeed at their favorite watering hole’s trivia night. They often swing wildly between glee and anger when pointing out what they perceive to be inaccuracies in any retelling of the subject of their gatekeeping. And nothing inspires rancor quite like a Hollywood production of a beloved character, historical figure, or event. While scrutiny of any fact-based film is a tradition, it’s become quite aggressive over the last decade as easy access to information has made for a better informed (or a more misled) public.
Here are some examples. In 2015, critics of Selma contended, among other things, that the film wrongly portrayed President Johnson as an obstructionist on civil rights. In that same year, critics of American Sniper claimed the film downplayed US Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s racism and glorification of violence. Similar controversies surrounded films like The Imitation Game, Hacksaw Ridge, Zero Dark Thirty, A Beautiful Mind, Bohemian Rhapsody, and even Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Since the release of Elvis, media sources have featured interviews with ‘Elvis experts’ about things in the film that don’t ring true to them – from Elvis’s relationship with B.B. King (they weren’t really close in the 50s but were in the early 70s) and the order in which he performed songs at various shows. Some critics are questioning whether Presley was really affected by the social upheavals in the 60s and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (he was). As the movie depicts, Elvis really did write and perform a protest song that rivals any of that era.
Another contends the white southern confederate flag-waving conservative culture never spoke out against the singer using racist terms. Others have said the inclusion of that aspect of Presley’s career makes the film ‘woke.’ Seriously, one wonders what their agenda is in questioning these things that archival news footage proves to be true and is so imperative to the times in general and the early career of Elvis specifically.
One writer even protested the depiction that Elvis was inspired mainly by black music and uses his high school performance of ‘Old Shep’ and appearances in the Louisiana Hayride as ‘proof’ he was more country than anything. Let’s be clear. Elvis’s meteoric rise was fueled by his performance of R&B. Period. Full stop.
Poetic License or Fabrications?
At issue, of course, it whether Hollywood is taking the traditional poetic license for any given film – the freedom to depart from or exaggerate the facts of a matter to create a more dramatic effect – or flagrantly inventing facts to further someone’s agenda or worldview. In most cases, it’s hard to tell because eye-witnesses have usually passed on. What we’re then left with are grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, record custodians, etc., to set the facts straight, provided they can even agree on the facts and don’t have an agenda themselves. And dialogue? Forget about it. Most of us can’t remember the exact conversations we had with our spouses over breakfast this morning, let alone the words spoken years ago. So why would we expect movie producers NOT to fill in the gaps with what they feel likely was said and done based on the overall narrative of the events? This is not lying, it’s a clear dividing line between “a true story” and “based on actual events.”
The Presley Estate has given this film it’s seal of approval. And even though it’s almost a certainty some of Elvis’ warts were covered up, the film pulls no punches with the more controversial aspects of the singer’s life. The extent of his drug use – and the affects on his health – are shown in shocking detail. The singer’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, says the version we’re seeing on the big screen – and Austin Butler‘s portrayal of Presley – is pretty much spot on. And she would know.