Real Good-Looking Boy
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
Released June 24th, 2022
Tom Hanks is playing an elf from another dimension. His interpretation of “Colonel” Tom Parker is unlike anything else he’s done in his career. Weight gain, prosthetics, and an accent of indeterminate origin combine to create an impish figure that seems both larger-than-life and ridiculously small-time. Hanks’ caricature of Parker acts as the narrator of director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the devil on your shoulder trying to convince you he’s not that bad. It’s an interesting decision to have Parker speak directly to viewers and it works to separate the film from other musical biopics. How much of this tale should we believe, if it’s being presented by a man whose entire identity is fiction? His name wasn’t Tom Parker, he wasn’t a Colonel. We meet him as a carnival man, doing whatever he can to make a fast buck. Being a good carnie, he’s adept at selling the crowd on the latest must-see attraction. As he moves into managing no-name musicians, he sees little difference in his product. Eventually he sets his sights on a young up-and-comer making waves named Elvis Presley. Parker knows this kid has the je ne sais quoi he’s been searching for. Together they could make a fortune.
Austin Butler gives a lovingly crafted, star-making performance as Elvis Presley, managing to capture both the swagger and vulnerability of Elvis the performer, Elvis the man, and eventually, Elvis the icon. He’s able to mimic Presley’s speaking voice without falling into the goofy impression people have done for years, and his lip-synching of Presley’s iconic songs sells the illusion well. His Elvis is gorgeous from the jump, a wild ball of electricity unleashed upon the unsuspecting youth of the nation. The teenagers wanted Elvis, they needed him, but only Colonel Tom Parker knew that in advance. Parker used his marketing skills to promote Presley with t-shirts, stickers, buttons, anything to get the kids to remember his product, and he did so for fifty percent of everything Elvis earned.
The movie does a great job explaining why, after he became the most famous man in the country, Elvis would continue to partner with the Colonel. Presley and Parker had a deeply co-dependent relationship and Parker was able to exploit Presley’s need for human connection for his own gain. Early on, there is a great visual reference to a carnival “geek,” the infamous sideshow act of days past, and maybe that is eventually what Presley became for Parker.
Olivia DeJonge makes Priscilla Presley quite the sympathetic character, having been with Elvis since she was fourteen, and being by his side as he became something more than a recording artist, something more than a star. DeJonge makes sure we share Priscilla’s concerns for Elvis, as he puts too much faith in the Colonel and his “Memphis Mafia” pals, as he pops too many pills, and as he believes his own hype. Eventually she leaves him, taking their young daughter Lisa-Marie with her. Though the film shies away from Elvis’ darker side, obviously there were enough issues between the two of them to lead to divorce.
Baz Luhrmann proves an inspired choice to direct a picture about Presley. Known for his colorful and glamourous vision, he takes the mythmaking of Moulin Rouge and myth busting of The Great Gatsby and marries them in glitzy, bombastic fashion, creating a visually arresting and sometimes dizzying production. It’s a strong cinematic spectacle. The film follows Presley from the time he was a young child reading Captain Marvel comic books to the end of his life at forty-two.
Many white performers of the 1950s benefited from radio stations being unwilling to play so-called “race records” of black artists. If a song gained popularity in the black community, a Caucasian cover version was recorded for white ears to hear. While there is no denying that Elvis benefitted greatly from his white privilege, the movie posits that he wasn’t guilty of cultural appropriation because he had grown up in a black neighborhood and genuinely loved the music he was exposed to in his youth. Baz incorporates hip-hop mashups on the soundtrack and it works surprisingly well, helping to convey the youthful energy of the exciting musical proceedings.
There are a lot of pop-culture milestones that the movie manages to squeeze in, such as Elvis’ early hayride concerts, recording at Sun records, the Ed Sullivan show, his banning from television, enlisting in the Army, his movie career, his comeback special, and the Vegas residency. The film moves at breakneck pace, but even with a runtime approaching three hours, not everything makes it in. Perhaps one day we will see the rumored four-hour cut that I imagine could possibly include notables such as President Richard Nixon, Ann-Margaret, two-way mirrors, and peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
Because this is a film that is approved by the Presley family and estate, you won’t find a deep dive into Elvis’ problems. Groupies, drugs, and guns are all glossed over, making the film almost too kind to Elvis the man, dismissing his infidelity and drug use as being minor issues in his life. Not to mention the issues with minors in his life. The film makes Elvis into a saintly figure, which any viewer should know is simply not the case. Because it’s interested in protecting his legacy in lieu of offering an honest critique, we are left with a film that isn’t as insightful as it could have been. But after decades of Elvis the punchline, it’s quite refreshing to see Elvis the effervescent.
For my entire life Elvis Presley has been a lunchbox in a gift shop, a velvet painting in a retirement home, a brand to be sold at truck stops next to Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. Baz Luhrmann’s film does a commendable job rescuing an important musical figure from kitschy cosplaying impersonators the world over, separating Elvis the Icon from Elvis the Artist, and successfully recontextualizing his legacy for a new generation. For that we can all offer a round of applause.