By Stuart Adelberg
I am too young to remember much about Elvis Presley. I rarely get to say, “I’m too young” these days, but in this case, it’s the truth. Elvis was born in 1935, enjoyed great popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and tragically passed away in 1977 at the age of 42. I remember when Elvis died, but by the time I was old enough to know who he was, Elvis’ star had sadly already begun to fade. Though I knew him as the legendary “king of rock and roll,” my sense of who Elvis was truly was limited, at least until this past week when I saw the new Baz Luhrmann biopic playing at the Avon.
I admire Baz Luhrmann’s work, and I am a fan of Tom Hanks, so I was eager to see the film for those reasons more than any real interest in Elvis. Luhrmann’s extraordinary direction and Hanks’ unconventional performance both delivered, but, in my opinion, the film and my new-found admiration for Elvis Presley both belong to Austin Butler and his exceptional portrayal of the title character.
Every filmmaker takes liberties when telling stories based on real events. Shifting the timing of occurrences, embellishing relationships, exaggerating conflicts, etc. are all part of what it means to creatively present a story that will appeal to diverse audiences. I am no expert on the history of the late 20th century beyond the insignificant parts that began with my birth! But I was so moved by this film, that I took time to read up on the characters and events and learned that much of the story did happen, though certainly not exactly as depicted on the screen.
The film largely focuses on the relationship between Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Reviewers and historians have already had a lot to say about Hanks’ portrayal of Parker and the Colonel’s role in Presley’s life, musical success, and ultimate personal and professional decline. I will leave these issues to others, as they were not the ones on my mind as I left the theatre. What impressed me most was the very human, multi-faceted, and seemingly authentic portrayal of Elvis by Austin Butler, no small task for a young actor playing a larger-than-life individual, remembered, and revered by millions.
Though Elvis’ reputation might lead one to conclude that it was his good looks and provocative moves that lead to his fame and adoration, his talent and natural ear for music were obviously very real. Butler presented Elvis as a serious performer who changed the trajectory of music in ways that we still see and hear today. The subject of some debate, it also seems clear that Elvis was strongly influenced by a connection and affinity for the black community and its music, a connection which would certainly have been unusual and courageous given the racial tensions of the time.
Beyond the music, Butler presents Elvis as a sympathetic human being with a tragic story that has frequently been repeated and sadly continues within the world of celebrity even today. Too often the most promising talents are twisted into caricatures that can never fulfil the unrealistic demands of fame. It is this part of Elvis’ life and legacy that Austin Butler’s moving performance left with me at the end of the film. There is no doubt that Elvis changed music forever. His impact could have been even more monumental if his sad story could also have changed the nature of fame.
Stuart Adelberg is the Executive Director of Stamford’s historic, community supported Avon Theatre Film Center. He has a long history of leadership and involvement in the region’s non-profit arts and human services communities.