And what did ABC do? It chose to air a made-for-television movie made in just 30 days starring Kurt Russell, then primarily known for having appeared in really bad Disney movies as a teenager a decade earlier—and it was directed by John Carpenter, whose only notable directorial effort was the low-budget horror movie Halloween, released four months earlier. And surprise! The ABC movie won the night. Thirty million people tuned in, compared with 26 million for GWTW and 24 million for Cuckoo’s Nest.
The Russell-Carpenter picture was called Elvis, and it aired 18 months after Presley’s death at the age of 42. Its victory came as a complete surprise to everyone because, at the time of his passing, Elvis seemed to be the ultimate has-been. He hadn’t had a hit record in years, hadn’t made a movie in years, had ballooned in weight, and was living out his days performing in a Vegas show that had been famously fresh at the beginning of the 1970s but was said to have turned into a tired and dated piece of inadvertent camp. His untimely end seemed more pathetic than tragic, at least if you followed the coverage of his death provided by the mainstream media and the way popular culture handled it.
The triumphant ratings were proof that the cultural panjandra of the 1970s had no clue what kind of impact Elvis had had or who Elvis was to a huge swath of Americans—and may not have had a clue about America altogether. This was Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” exercising its muscle, the Reagan voter in utero, the Trump voter avant la lettre. It turned out Elvis was by far the most beloved person in popular culture to an entire cohort of Americans who were largely invisible to New York and Hollywood.
His unremarkable home, Graceland, quickly became the most-visited private residence in America. I went to Graceland not long after Priscilla Presley had opened it to tourists, and it struck me with the force of revelation that his fans adored Elvis because they truly saw themselves in him. Graceland is a 1950s working-class kid’s dream of how a rich person should live—lots of built-in TVs and push-button conveniences and telephones wherever your arm might reach.
He had no airs. Elvis didn’t become an art collector, or tell interviewers he was reading Dostoyevsky. He stayed in Memphis and made fried bacon, peanut butter, and banana sandwiches to his heart’s content. He never became too big for his britches. Even the endless stream of terrible movies he made were a sign of that; with very few exceptions, they were shaggy and unpretentious and made no demands. And they adored him for it. Whatever hold he had over people when he was alive has not lessened all that much since his death. Forty-five years later, Elvis Presley is, by a factor of two, the biggest-selling solo artist in history.
Now, 43 years after Kurt Russell’s star turn, another heretofore obscure Disney actor named Austin Butler has taken on the part—this time in a wildly gaudy and hyperactive picture, also called Elvis. Its director, Baz Luhrmann, is best known for the similarly hysterical Moulin Rouge, though his best picture by a country mile is the one he made before this—the underrated, surprisingly splendid version of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Elvis is 2 hours and 40 minutes of camera swoops and dissolves and wipes clearly intended to evoke not only Luhrmann’s own past work but Elvis’s own physical gyrations. This thing never slows down to the speed limit, not even for a second. The problem is that after 10 minutes of dazzlement—the sets and costumes and cinematography are absolutely gorgeous—the whole project starts seeming crazily desperate rather than refreshingly exhilarating. By the time the first hour has passed, you feel simultaneously overstimulated and under-entertained. By the time the second hour mark has come, you start wondering where Fat Elvis is already so you can see the end coming. And when it’s over, you may feel like you never want to go into a movie theater ever again.
Aside from Luhrmann’s welcome insistence that Elvis’s use of African-American musical tropes was born out of love and respect rather than an act of cultural appropriation, he has absolutely nothing of interest to say about Presley and clearly has no clue what the man was about. That is no sin—Elvis’s best biographer, Peter Guralnick, points out that it’s very hard to get a bead on Elvis because he “never kept a diary, left us with no memoirs, wrote scarcely any letters, and rarely submitted to interviews.” Still, if you’re going to make a biopic, you have to present a compelling character we’re willing to follow for the length of the movie—and Elvis here is a total cipher.
Luhrmann’s solution to this problem is to center the movie’s narrative on Elvis’s notorious manager, Tom Parker, the fake colonel who claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania notwithstanding a thick Dutch accent. Tom Hanks plays the corpulent Parker, and it’s fun to see him stretch so far for a part, but it doesn’t work, not at all. He’s sheathed in makeup that must have taken hours to put on—but which is so distracting you spend every moment he’s on screen trying to see where it was applied. And his accent is weird too.
Luhrmann’s Parker becomes the hero of the story, even though Luhrmann makes clear he was a rapacious con artist who took this uneducated boy and his hardscrabble family and tricked them into deals that primarily benefited him. He narrates the movie—whether from a coma or in purgatory it’s really not clear—and it is Parker who informs us gravely at the end that Elvis loved his fans so much he basically died for them. Parker was the only person who really understood Elvis, Luhrmann is trying to say; he saw him in a way nobody else did. Please. The guy was a charlatan and a thief and charmed people because he never pretended to be anything else. His bond with Elvis, like Elvis himself, remains a mystery.
What’s entirely missing from this overlong and overdetailed work of misbegotten hero worship is that Elvis had many speeds. He wasn’t just the gyrator; he sang ballads and gospel and slow stuff. In his movies, he’s cool and collected and always, always amused. He was anything but ponderous. Watch his famous shot-from-the-waist-up performance on The Ed Sullivan Show and you see a kid who is cracking himself up with his own shtick. Kurt Russell got that in his performance back on movie-war night. This movie doesn’t. It makes you think Elvis walked around with a boulder on his back. But that kid, that amazing kid, he knew it was all a lark.