What the ‘Elvis’ Movie Got Wrong — and Right

The story of Elvis Presley is a tough one to package. Rising from poverty, Presley ushered in the unruly age of rock and swung his hips around a fair share of controversy — all before age 43. And though Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic captures that maximal arc, with its buzzy montages and (nearly) three-hour runtime… some major aspects are definitely missing in Elvis.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley

Uncredited/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Combination Photo

Obviously, the success of Elvis hinges on its lead actor. And though Austin Butler does an admirable job imitating the King’s muffled drawl, he simply does not look like Elvis. Occasionally, in flickering moments of profile shots, Butler’s face slightly resembled Presley’s. But for the most part, the Hollywood youngster’s features looked too chiseled, his blue eyes lost in excessive eyeliner. It became distracting.

Still, Butler gave his all to the role, acting out more than 20 years of the singer’s life. He even lent his vocals to the classic soundtrack, singing the early-era hits. His vocals were blended with the real-life Elvis’ voice in the later songs.

But amidst chaotic cuts and swirling graphics — really, any Baz Luhrmann production — it takes more to stand out. And as anyone who saw Elvis will tell you, it was Tom Hanks polarizing portrayal as the Colonel which rose above the film’s literal smoke and mirrors.

The Colonel as the Villain

Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker, via Variety

The most daring narrative choice in Elvis is the story’s framing from the point of view of Colonel Tom Park: Elvis Presley’s notorious manager. Although his client became a figurehead of the 1950s, and, frankly, America as a whole, the Colonel has remained shrouded in mystery. And while the new movie sheds light on Parker’s scheming business practices, it leaves further questions about his true origins.

Parker was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk and came to the U.S. from the Netherlands, illegally, around the year 1929. Changing his name upon arrival, Parker began working in carnivals and reveled in his identity as a “snowman,” a term which represented Parker’s own personal brand of grifting. The pun combines the slang “snow” (as in, pulling the wool over one’s eyes) with the more typical carnie word, “showman.” And if you’re confused, don’t worry — Elvis pummels viewers with a flurrying avalanche of snowman symbolism.

Because it is, indeed, core to Parker’s soul. Not only is he a con man, he flaunts it. He struts around with a snowman walking stick, confidently, and calls himself the Colonel… despite going AWOL in the service, labeled a deserter. (The Colonel, in fact, received his honorary rank from Jimmie Davis in exchange for aiding his Louisiana governor campaign; this is not touched on in the movie.) He speaks in a cartoonish accent, blending South caricature with his own Germanic heritage. Nothing about the Colonel adds up, and Hanks captures that off-kilter confidence with his own larger-than-life portrayal.

Elvis is bookended by the Colonel’s health failures, as the old man lays delirious, reflecting on the fall of his former client. “I didn’t kill Elvis Presley…” He says multiple times, superimposed into dizzying dream sequences of casino interiors. And while Parker, of course, did not technically kill the King, he made choices which kept Presley stuck at Las Vegas residencies, effectively crippling his career. (He also frauded Elvis at every turn, consistently earning more than the act himself.)

So in a sense, the Sin City was both of their undoings. The Colonel died there in 1997, following decades of his crippling gambling addiction.

Tom Hanks’ Accent?!

Although Tom Hanks’ put-on accent in Elvis is hilarious (and kind of awesome), it’s likely an exaggeration of how Tom Parker actually spoke. According to the chief music critic at Variety, Chris Willman, the Colonel’s accent was more American than what Hanks delivers.

“He had what sounded like a slight lisp or speech impediment,” Willman explains. “Turns out he didn’t have an impediment — he was just trying to wrap a Dutch tongue around the English language, Southern-style. It sounded like a weird (Southern) regional dialect, and you would know it was Dutch only by listening for certain consonants.” So, certainly it was a unique blend, both rural and European.

But the odd voice crafted by Hanks and Luhrmann heightens the drama of the character, further estranging him from the world around him: the distinctly American world of Elvis Presley. It’s also super villainous. The layers upon layers of bulging prosthetics also help.

Elvis’ Relationship to Black Musicians

Elvis makes notable strides to present the singer as paying homage to the black musicians of his era, rather than appropriating them. And it’s a subject that’s been under serious debate for decades.

It only takes listening to any early Elvis recording to know he was inspired by black rhythm and blues. It was the music of his childhood and home, having grown up in the projects around Tupelo, Mississippi. As Elvis portrays, little Presley’s friends were mostly black and he enjoyed revival church services. In the movie, it’s Elvis’ early experience at a local jazz joint which introduces him to “That’s All Right.” The song was first sang by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.

Similarly, Presley’s other breakout single “Hound Dog” was originally by Willie May “Big Mama” Thornton, who sang a popular version for a black record label. Crudup and Thornton each appear as characters in Elvis, and indeed, Presley crossed paths with them both. However, it appears that neither were fairly compensated for their work.

Crudup wrote three songs used by Presley, earning the title of “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But he received little to no royalties from Presley, or the other famous artists who covered his work. He died in 1974, four years after a failed royalty settlement. (His family, though, has collected more than $3 million over the last three decades.)

Thornton, though, did not write “Hound Dog,” and was entitled to less compensation. The song was actually composed by two teenage Jewish leftists: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller would go on to write more songs for Presley, including “Love Me” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Thornton, meanwhile, “Didn’t get no money from them at all,” as she told Rolling Stone in 1984. Doja Cat’s new single “Vegas,” featured on the Elvis soundtrack, represents a modern “Hound Dog” reinterpretation; it samples, and centers, Thornton’s signature vocals. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the Thornton estate will benefit.)

Still, many of Presley’s black contemporaries defended his use of black music, among them, James Brown, Little Richard, and B.B. King. Each considered Elvis a close friend, and Richard and King both feature heavily in the new Elvis movie. Other popular black musicians, though, are not convinced of Presley’s pure intentions. In 1994, Ray Charles criticized him as a cultural thief.

Elvis as a Political Figure

In general, Elvis dances around Presley’s stance on the politics of the 1950s and ’60s. He appears deeply troubled by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and, in the events of the film, pens “If I can Dream” as a sort of protest ode.

In real life though, Presley seemed mostly tapped out of current events. “I don’t hardly ever get a chance to read the newspapers,” Presley told a reporter in 1956; the Miami Herald interview essentially mocked the King’s ignorance and was titled “In a World of His Own.” Of course, that’s not to say he had no opinions on the turmoil of the ’60s, but he was no radical or activist.

During the spring of 1958, Presley was, famously, drafted into the military. And though he had the option to join the Special Services as an entertainer, the Colonel suggested he enlist as a regular soldier to clean up his “bad boy” image. And when the Colonel spoke, Elvis listened. Showcasing even deeper indifference, Presley reportedly said, “The Army can do anything it wants with me.” In the end, he served two years in Germany, where he met his future wife, the young Priscilla Beaulieu.

Years later, Presley refused to publicly comment on the Vietnam War.

Elvis Meeting Nixon?

Despite his disinterest in national politics, Presley met with President Richard Nixon at the Oval Office in 1968. Based on a letter he wrote to the president — and multiple witness accounts — it seems Presley did the stunt for a very specific, very rock star reason: to get a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. As Priscilla Presley wrote in her memoir, “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him… he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”

Although Presley’s letter to Nixon indicates his support of the president, his ultimate goal is very clear: “I will be here for as long as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent.” And though he rambles on about “drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques,” Presley also says that he wants the meeting to be kept “very private.” Even then, Presley knew Nixon was uncool.

The historic moment only gained national attention in 1988 when the National Archives began selling the photos.

Strangely, the story was skipped over entirely in the Elvis film.

Elvis and His Mother…

Elvis and Gladys Presley, via Elvis Presley News

In Elvis, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is nearly unrecognizable as Gladys Presley, Elvis’ tortured mother. Plagued by the infant death of Evlis’ twin brother, Jesse, Gladys appears as an emotional and over-protective woman who is very, very close to her son. And by most accounts, that’s an accurate portrayal.

Growing up in extreme poverty, Elvis often shared a room with his parents. And, according to various reports, he and his mom shared a bed, often, when his father way away. (Elvis’ father, Vernon, was imprisoned for much of his childhood.) The pair spoke in their own private baby talk and as Elvis’ star rose, Gladys is quoted as saying, “I wish we was poor again, I really do,” because she missed her relationship with her son so much.

Depressed, she began to drink more, especially while her son was station in Germany, which led to her premature death in 1958 at age 46.

Elvis effectively captures the intimacy between Gladys and Elvis, shooting Gyllenhaal and Austin Butler in tense, romantic close-ups. However, the fact that Elvis shared a bed with his mother is missing from the script. Also missing? The scene at Gladys’ funeral, where Elvis throws himself onto her casket as its lowered into the grown. “Everything I have is gone!” Elvis famously cried, hanging onto the coffin.

But Gladys’ death made room for another woman in Elvis’ life… Enter: 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu.

Priscilla Presley’s Age

Dave Pickoff/AP, Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

That’s right, Priscilla Beaulieu was 14 years old when she first crossed paths with Elvis Presley. The movie skips over this salacious detail, strategically, referring to her as “teenaged” in the narration. She met Elvis, who was 24, in 1959, at a party at his home in Bad Nauheim, Germany. She was living around the American army base with her mother and step-father, an Air Force officer.  

The rest of the romance portrayed in Elvis is essentially accurate: falling head over heels for one another, it was quickly clear that Priscilla’s parents could not keep them apart. After keeping in touch over the phone for years, she was whisked back to Graceland in 1962 and became the official Mrs. Presley five years later at age 22.

Priscilla has been vocally supportive of the new Elvis film, even appearing with Austin Butler on the Met Gala red carpet. So it’s no surprise, her true age was concealed on-screen. Bringing the late rocker back into the cultural conversation, Elvis has the potential to make the Presley estate a lot money.

Priscilla is played in the film by by up-and-comer Olivia DeJonge.

The Death of Elvis

Elvis takes its time depicting the 1970s: a crushing, and deadly, era for Elvis Presley. An increasingly bloated Austin Butler does a commendable job with Elvis’ slurring, sloppy sets. But there is one key detail missing from the movie. And it’s one that we all know: Elvis died on the toilet. They’re not fooling anyone by leaving it out!

Elvis died in 1977 when he was 42 years old. He had a heart attack while at home in his Graceland estate. And yes, he was actually using the bathroom at the time.

At the time, less was understood at the time about the extent of Elvis’ drug use. His personal physician, “Dr. Nick” — who makes many shady appearances in Elvis —liberally prescribed Elvis opioids which were known to cause “savage constipation.” Severely weakened by rampant substance abuse, Elvis’ heart simply could not take it.

And as the ending of Elvis puts it, fairly accurately, the Colonel lived on to pour his fortune into slot machines.

What do you think?

4 Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. This film could’ve been titled “Parker.” It was about the demise of Elvis under the feeding frenzy of a fraudulent carnival shyster.
    Some elements of Elvis’ life needed left out because itxwas unimportant to why the director msde the film in the first place.
    As Parker took his toll on Elvis aling with Elvis’ own father, Elvis realized he was trapped. He couldn’t just walk out. Several songs were a message about his situation. I believe subconciously Elvis was telling Priscilla I’ll remember You, I want you I need you I love you, Suspicious Minds i.e. we can’t go on together with…
    The ending was respectful of Elvis and his legacy. It was better than lying next to a toilet.
    Austin did a fantastic job. He didn’t have to look exactly like Elvis. They got as close as they could. The entire movie was about Parker’s manipulations and how an identity can easily be falsified and take down anyone.

  2. You could not be more wrong! The movie is a gem of accuracy as well as a feather in the cap of the actor who played him! Everyone in the theater was captivated! I’ve never seen so many people touched by a movie. I’ve heard not one person who was a dedicated fan, that doesn’t love this movie. Don’t pervert his life! Even today, there are none so loyal as Elvis fans! He deserved more than he got outta life so back off!

  3. Maggie G. was NOT in the movie. She had dropped out and instead Gladys was played by Helen Thompson. So when you report facts that are wrong, please check your own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Last WWII Medal of Honor Recipient, Flamethrowing Hershel “Woody” Williams, Dies at Age 98

200 Miles From the Arctic Circle, You Can See the Most Breathtaking View of the Northern Lights