Today’s blog post is written by Eric Wolfson, the author behind the 33 1/3 book: Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis. He reflects on Elvis’ own acting career and shares his thoughts on Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation, looking particularly at Austin Butler’s rendition of Elvis and the inaccuracies in Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker.
One of the great ironies of Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 Elvis film is that Elvis himself would’ve killed for a role like this. From his first screen test in 1956, Elvis wanted to be thought of a serious actor, modeled in the style of his heroes James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Tony Curtis. After a promising start in the ’50s, which include his finest two films, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole—both of which not coincidentally starring Elvis as a conflicted young rebel who turns out to be great singer—Elvis came back from the Army and largely churned out schmaltz. One of the many unknowns in Elvis’s life was would’ve happened if Elvis’s film career had been treated seriously.
Instead, we have Austen Butler in the Oscar-nominated role. And he deserved it. Austin Butler is as good of an Elvis as we’re ever going to get. I feel the same way about Butler in Elvis as I do about Jamie Foxx in Ray and Jennifer Hudson in Aretha—I don’t think that any living person could have done a better job, and even if they tried, their limitations would make their performances at best equal to Butler’s. The film’s cardinal sin, however, was casting Tom Hanks as the Colonel. This was stunt casting at its worst—as long as Tom Wilkinson is still alive, there is no other person on earth who should be cast as the Colonel, period. I love Tom Hanks, but it was just too much of a stretch even for the fanciful world of a Baz Luhrmann film.
Luhrmann’s film is a deft balancing act. Elvis took the firm-handed filmmaking of the Serious Rock Biopic (think Ray or Walk the Line) and filled it with the ridiculous glam and glitter of the Stupid Rock Biopic (think Great Balls of Fire or The Doors). The result is a film that nearly transcends itself, a Warholian exercise in low culture being re-presented as high culture. It’s a sparkly trinket of a film that attempts to contextualize Elvis’ life while also hyper-charging it. Take the scene where Elvis’s debuts at The Louisiana Hayride and all the women lose their minds. It is edited almost like a horror film, as every moment of silence weighs even heavier than every moment with music, until we literally see rock and roll spread over the crowd like they were speaking in tongues. Afterward, my wife told me that she hadn’t really understood Elvis’s initial appeal until that scene. Like the Velvet Underground, we have trouble comprehending Elvis’s newness because we live in the world that he created. The scene was a remarkable, precise, and sexy piece of film, and arguably its most successful moment.
But moments like these were blunted by the film being narrated by the Colonel as a sort of Ishmael figure in Moby Dick. He might as well have begun the film by saying “Call me Colonel” (in fact, I’m surprised they didn’t do that). The movie made the Colonel into this super villain that pits him against Elvis in ways that are not always accurate. The truth is actually more boring: Elvis generally went along with him. (When I texted this to a friend, she shrewdly responded: “Elvis generally going along is both more boring and more tragic somehow.”)
We want our Elvis to be the rebel fighting the system in whichever form it takes. In his own career, this would mean fighting the Colonel. So, the movie presents Elvis enlisting in the Army (he was drafted); creating an entire fake façade for “The ’68 Comeback Special” to fool the Colonel (the Colonel’s delusions never went that far); it shows us Elvis firing the Colonel onstage while performing in Las Vegas (the film’s most misleading scene—this simply never happened). This might make for good Hollywood storytelling and film-making, but it manipulates a story that, when told the right way, needs no manipulating.
Once, Elvis tried to tell it himself. One of the few awards he ever received in person was when he was chosen as one of the Ten Outstanding Men of 1970 by the Jaycees. “When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer,” Elvis told the crowd, in words cited in the movie Elvis. “I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I ever dreamed, has come true a hundred times.”
One of the triumphs of Luhrmann’s film is that it presents Elvis as a modern-day superhero. In an era where comic book franchises walk lockstep with Hollywood smashes, Elvis’s larger-than-life story may just be the ultimate origin story. And while he didn’t run around as a kid with a lightning bolt around his neck like the movie shows, he did find escape in comic books, especially Captain Marvel Jr., the first teen superhero who wasn’t a sidekick.
But with the Colonel’s words framing the film, the villain tells the hero’s story, as though the Joker was narrating a movie about Batman. In this way, the two are tied together. One thing that I’ve learned is that people don’t want to hear is that Elvis couldn’t have been Elvis without the Colonel. Clearly Elvis had natural talent, but it was the Colonel’s marketing that put Elvis over the top into a living legend, keeping his boy from live performances for most of the ’60s and granting virtually no serious interviews. By his own accord, Elvis was never interested in songwriting, which seems to extend into writing of any kind. He leaves us with no autobiography or diaries, only stray letters that fail to provide any sweeping insights. Luhrmann’s film, then, pulls a rare trick: it taps into the hype, so that even though we are watching a biopic of Elvis, he still remains essentially unknowable.
But we still look up to him, like we look up to Superman or Wonder Woman or Black Panther, their larger-than-life heroics revealing what we want to see in ourselves.
Eric Wolfson is the author of the critically acclaimed 33 1/3 book, From Elvis in Memphis. You can find him on Twitter/X (@EricWolfson) and Instagram (@EricWolfson). He lives in Washington, D.C., and works in the Performing Arts Division of the U.S. Copyright Office.
Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).