Elvis and the Colonel: How Baz Luhrmann Blew It

I wrote a book called Elvis in Vegas, so I probably know too much about the subject to fairly judge Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic, Elvis. But it’s hard not to have strong reactions to Luhrmann’s frenetic, fast-cut, over-the-top treatment of the King’s life and career. 

Some of the movie is gratifying. I was glad, for instance, that it pays so much attention to Elvis’s Las Vegas comeback show in 1969 ­— nearly as great an achievement, in my view, as his emergence as a pioneering rock ‘n ‘ roller in the mid-1950s. Austin Butler is convincing as Elvis; he’s got the look and the moves — and doesn’t need the voice, since he mostly lip-syncs to Elvis recordings. I was also pleased (and surprised) that the film doesn’t sensationalize or pontificate about Elvis’s drug-fueled decline in the later years; his overdose death in 1977 isn’t even dramatized, merely referenced in some on-screen text at the end. All in all, Elvis comes off better than I expected.  

Other than that, the film is pretty much a travesty. 

For one thing, it turns out to be less about Elvis than about Colonel Tom Parker, his legendary, controlling manager. As played by Tom Hanks, hamming it up in blubbery fat makeup, he narrates the film, is at the center of most scenes, and is portrayed as a buffoonish villain at every turn.  He speaks in a bizarre Dutch accent, which isn’t just wrong (yes, the Colonel emigrated from Holland at age 20, under shady circumstances, but he spoke with a typical southern accent); it throws the whole movie off. 

The Colonel had a complex relationship with Elvis; he was certainly guilty of exploiting his superstar and making some wrong career decisions. But he also deserves credit for orchestrating the most spectacular, world-changing rise to fame in pop music history. Yet Luhrmann, wherever he can, takes bits of truth and distorts or embellishes them to put Parker in the worst possible light. 

A couple of examples. When NBC signs Elvis for his big comeback special in December 1968, it’s true that Parker initially envisioned it as a traditional Christmas special. But NBC hired a hip young producer named Steve Binder, who quickly scrapped that notion and used the show to reintroduce the nation to Elvis’s music, old and new, and his still formidable performing chops. The idea that the Colonel would not know this — we see him sappily assuring the sponsors, even on the day of the taping, that “Here Comes Santa Claus” is due any minute — is plain ludicrous.   

And yes, there was a conservative backlash to Elvis’s transgressive, hip-shaking performances in those early years. But the film takes one silly TV appearance (on the Steve Allen Show, Elvis was forced to sing “Hound Dog” to a real hound dog) and turns it into a national campaign, spearheaded by the Colonel, to present a clean-cut “new Elvis.” It even implies that the Colonel was behind Elvis’s drafting into the Army in 1958. To be sure, the Colonel felt that, once Elvis was drafted, serving in the Army would help polish his all-American-boy image. But the idea that the manager of the hottest act in show business, at the peak of his popularity, would actively seek to remove his meal-ticket from the scene for two years just makes no sense.   

There are other instances of hype and hooey. Elvis did, late in his career, have a fight with Colonel Parker and tried to fire him — only to come crawling back when the Colonel submitted a huge bill for past services. But Luhrmann spoils the anecdote by having Elvis fire the Colonel publicly, on stage — just so we can watch the Colonel squirm and seethe at his ringside table, where he’s been bragging about his boy to some bigwig guests. 

It’s probably fruitless to complain about a biopic departing from the facts, especially a biopic directed by a showman like Baz Luhrmann. But Elvis’s real story is colorful and dramatic enough that it doesn’t need this tarted-up, dumbed-down treatment. It’s an insult to the audience — and to Elvis, too.   

3 thoughts on “Elvis and the Colonel: How Baz Luhrmann Blew It

  1. You don’t have to hold back. It’s okay to tell us what you really think. LOL
    Great review. Now I really do want to see it. Take care. Stay safe.
    Best wishes for continued success! Alexis
    PS I’m writing my memoirs re my career and my family’s newspaper business. Looking for a publisher. Andy suggestions?


    1. Alexis – So nice to hear from you. Hope all is well. I look forward to reading your memoir — good luck with it. All best, Richard


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