Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Did Colonel ever cry? I don’t remember, maybe there’s a paragraph from Peter Guralnick’s great two-part Elvis biography that recounts such an incident. (Throughout the books, Guralnick refers to Col. Tom Parker, who was born in the Netherlands with an entirely different name, as “Colonel,” not “the Colonel,” a nuance I have always liked.) In Baz Luhrmann’s exhausting Elvis, there is such a scene, and it’s representative of this movie’s problem: an insistence on reaching for the Big Thing, to tie everything up with significance and melodrama, to hammer its points.
There is richness in the story of Elvis Presley (played by the spirited Austin Butler) and Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), and Luhrmann knows it. In fact, the director’s manic approach, which turns the material into a showbizzy Passion Play stuffed with sequins, never lets you forget it. Almost every sequence contains an elemental battle between Good and Evil, with Luhrmann setting up phony cliffhangers invariably solved by Elvis breaking into “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Trouble” or “Suspicious Minds.” The biggest of these temporary solutions is the Comeback Special—the stuff of Lazarusian legend, as always. Of course, Elvis solves these crises only momentarily, because this is a Faust tale in which Faust is only dimly aware that he has sold his soul; the levers are being pulled by Colonel, who rakes in his healthy percentage and gambles it away. (I hope people can overlook the prosthetics and the funny accent Tom Hanks has adopted here, and see how completely he understands the character, and how deftly he uses his narrow eyes to capture this huckster.)
The movie’s called Elvis and you will enjoy hearing the music, and seeing Butler give himself over to the songs in the way Presley did. But this is largely a film about Colonel’s string-pulling, and part of its bloat is that we must make room for both. I’m glad Luhrmann and his writers emphasize Colonel’s “Snowman” shtick, a really weird detail (both horrifying and haunting in Guralnick’s books). Colonel was proud of being a self-proclaimed “Snowman,” a con artist, a grifter, proud of that tradition of gross American selling that takes as much as it can and leaves the fleeced sucker with nothing. The backbone scene in Elvis has Colonel signing a deal on a tablecloth with the owners of a Vegas hotel while Elvis is performing his ass off onstage nearby; the contract will trap Elvis at the hotel, instead of letting him travel the world and make decent movies, as he would like to do.
It’s a great sequence, during which Luhrmann’s hyperactive cutting actually serves a purpose, and the music makes the mood. Colonel’s deal is made not to serve Presley’s career but to forgive his own Vegas gambling debts, and the exhilaration of the musical performance is shot to tatters by the sickening business deal. The spectacle of luminous artistic talent being crushed by the gears of business is a key American story, and in this sequence it comes to life in a heartbreaking way. Beaming on stage, Elvis is dead—he just doesn’t know it yet.
Luhrmann can’t help himself, of course—he has to take this idea and smother it in rhinestones, until it all looks cheap and tacky. (Surely he knows he’s got some Colonel in him, too.) Elvis is fun at times, even in its absurdly overblown sentimentality; I can forgive that more easily than Luhrmann’s cutting every three seconds, regardless of what’s going on in a scene. The movie’s showboating—not just the visual attack, but also its repositioning of the historical Elvis as a socially enlightened figure—is so relentless, it wore me down into indifference. If you watch this streaming over the course of three days, maybe it won’t feel quite so overbearing, but of course that’s not how you’re meant to see it. You’re meant to be snowed.
June 24, 2002
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.