Elvis: Why Baz Luhrmann Didn’t Tell The Whole Story

With Elvis, we are hearing the King’s story through the voice of a classic unreliable narrator: Colonel Tom Parker, a self-proclaimed conman who built Elvis’ brand and bled him dry. So, what did Tom – and director Baz Lurhmann – leave out… and more importantly, why? When it comes to the truth, and the story, where should the responsibility of the biopic lie? And in this case, would a fuller picture of Elvis damage our empathy with the character?


Biopics aren’t always the truth, but they are versions of the truth. With Elvis, we are hearing the King’s story through the voice of a classic unreliable narrator: Colonel Tom Parker, a self-proclaimed conman who built Elvis’ brand and bled him dry. So, what did Tom — and director Baz Lurhmann — leave out…and more importantly, why?

Colonel Tom Parker: “I made Elvis Presley.” - Elvis

Through Tom’s eyes, we see Elvis as a family man, as someone who pushed for progress, and as a soulful artist who was destroyed by the American capitalist drive for profit. We don’t really see some other parts of the real story: like the other women or the conservative side of his politics, and questions around his music’s cultural appropriation are only addressed on a surface level. So when it comes to the truth, and the story, where should the responsibility of the biopic lie? And in this case, would a fuller picture of Elvis damage our empathy with the character?

Here’s our take on some of the dark truths left out of Elvis, and why.

Luhrmann’s Elvis has two women in his life: his Mom and Priscilla, and while there’s a passing reference to infidelities made toward the end of his marriage, these are almost brushed aside as a consequence of his dwindling mental state and heightening addiction problem.

In reality, Elvis was a habitual cheater. He reportedly had affairs with movie co-stars Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra, though Nancy denied the claims, and Priscilla said in 2018 that she didn’t think he could ever be faithful to one woman. Pageant winner Linda Thompson, whom Elvis was in a long term relationship with after his and Priscilla’s divorce, was also completely left out of the movie. Upon the film’s release, she claimed she felt “erased”.

All of this was in service of mythologising the Elvis and Priscilla relationship. But even aside from the infidelity, in reality their romance was far more complicated than the film makes out.

Colonel Tom Parker: “There was the fairytale wedding, the honeymoon on Frank Sinatra’s jet, and introducing baby Lisa Marie.” - Elvis

In her memoir Elvis And Me, Priscilla revealed Elvis asked for a trial separation while she was pregnant, and was uncomfortable with the idea of having sex with her after she became a mother. Elvis’ friend Sonny West claimed that “[his mother] gave him so much love and attention when he was growing up that he came to put all mothers on a special pedestal. The idea of sex with a mother was, to Elvis, out of the question.”

And perhaps the most telling thing the film elides about Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship is the fact that when they met, Elvis was 24, and Priscilla was 14. Reportedly the first thing he said to her when he found out she was in ninth grade was: “why you’re just a baby.” And while Priscilla is adamant the relationship was never consummated until she was over the age of consent, when you read up on the details of their relationship, there’s the sense that some inappropriate lines were crossed earlier. He introduced her to drugs, moved her into his home when she was 15, and by her own admission, “molded” her into his ideal woman. The film depicts the relationship as a classic, All-American romance, but the reality feels much more complex.

Away from romantic relationships with women, the film also subtly erases the influence of Marion Keisker on Elvis’ career. While the Sun Records assistant is briefly included in the film, her role was far more instrumental, with Elvis never forgetting that it was her who gave him his start in the business

Sam Phillips: “I don’t know what it is you see in this boy.”

Marion Keisker: “I just think he’s different.” - Elvis

Of course, on a story level, given that it’s Colonel Tom who is telling the story, it makes sense we’d get the sanitized version of Elvis – but it does end up minimizing a lot of the female perspectives, and the messiness.

Undeniably, Elvis was a white artist who profited from black musical traditions. His first hits were all renditions of songs already recorded by black, blues artists like Big Mama Thornton, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and Otis Blackwell, and by many nowadays he’s seen as the archetypal example of cultural appropriation. The film tries to contextualize this, showing how Elvis grew up in a black community, had his first meaningful musical experiences listening to black music, and was supported by black artists. The sense is that this music was authentic to Elvis. But while the film has a little mention of the unfairness between Elvis’ and his black contemporaries’ situations—

B. B. King: “They’re not gonna put you in jail. They might put me in jail for walking across the street, but you’re a famous white boy.” - Elvis

—some felt the movie made black artists seem a little too in harmony with Elvis, brushing over any resentment that would have inevitably been felt when he profited to such a larger degree off their music. Slate’s Jack Hamilton also writes: “The movie’s depictions of Black music-making often feel flagrantly racist, shot after leering shot of carnal, frenetic ecstasy, while whole traditions like gospel, blues, and R&B are reduced to raw material for Elvis to bring forth to benighted white masses.” The major black artists the film briefly includes just don’t get much screen time, so the effect is they’re put more on the sidelines or their impact feels belittled. Elvis hears Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti” in a small Memphis club, when in reality, that song had been a national hit for a long time before that.

Overall, in the film, Elvis scares the older white men who control the government and media because he’s edgy, a harbinger of progress – bringing sexual awakening to young women and black music to white audiences. All of the scenes are in service of portraying Elvis as a liberal, socially aware artist. A scene in which Elvis sings “Trouble” to a segregated audience is deliberately juxtaposed with a white nationalist rally going on a few miles away, painting him as this political firebrand. But while that gig did happen, he didn’t perform that song.

And on the contrary, in his later life Elvis’ politics skewed much further to the right than the film would lead you to believe. One scene that was filmed, but eventually left out, was Elvis’ meeting with President Richard Nixon. Luhrmann said he cut it because he wanted to “track the spirit of the character.” But what’s known from that meeting (and portrayed in the 2016 film Elvis & Nixon) is that Elvis put himself forward to be a “Federal Agent at Large” in the war on drugs and communism. He was also reportedly very critical of The Beatles, saying they displayed an Anti-American spirit.

We are often invited to look at biopics as nothing more than filmed biographies. That’s not the case. Everything that’s left out of the film is in service of telling a different story, that of America, and how it changed in the post-war era.

In explaining the circumstances that led to him making Elvis, Baz Luhrmann focused on the intriguing character that was Colonel Tom Parker. Through Tom’s eyes, we see Elvis the metaphor, Elvis the brand.

This is present from the film’s early moments, including the now much-memed scene of Tom Parker realizing that Elvis isn’t a black artist.

Jimmie Rodgers: “That’s the thing. He’s white.”

Colonel Tom Parker: “He’s white?” - Elvis

In all the debate around cultural appropriation, it’s typically Elvis who’s made the villain. But here, we see Colonel Tom’s cogs turning. The soul of the music is there — present in the depictions of foundational artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton — but segregation won’t allow this music to cross the color line. Elvis, being of that world but looking like something else entirely, is the vehicle by which rock and roll is brought to the white masses. The result is tragically illustrative of how society and capitalism, represented by Colonel Tom, is able to exploit black art for the benefit of white people.

The further tragedy is how this exploitation of Elvis himself by Parker slowly erodes his soul. Things like artist merchandise are taken for granted these days, and arguably as just as big a part of an artist’s output as their music, but with Elvis, he became the product. It wasn’t just shirts — it was everything, including things aimed at people who didn’t even like him.

All of the fiction of the film — Elvis singing “Trouble”, him firing Colonel Tom on stage in Las Vegas — are attempts to evoke Elvis’ soul trying to fight his way out of Colonel Tom’s clutches.

Elvis: “Oh, you bloodsucking, old vampire. You bled me dry and you still want more?” - Elvis

We’re watching someone trapped in an abusive relationship, who eventually succumbs to it. His paranoia, anxiety, and descent into self-destructive behavior are all as a result of this machine that Colonel Tom built around him, one which puts profit over the welfare of artists — and one which arguably became the blueprint for the music business.

In the film’s climax, Elvis does fight his way out. We pull away from Austin Butler’s powerful performance and get the real Elvis, near the end of his life, trying to force out “Unchained Melody” with everything he’s got. Watching it is painful, but the underlying message seems to be this: the sell may win, but the soul lives on, and lives longer. It’s hard to do something new with the biopic genre. Parodies like Walk Hard and Weird have exposed how formulaic they can be. But with Elvis, it feels like there’s some effort to explode and open up his story to tell a bigger story. As a person he gets let off the hook, but the film is more interested about the monumental impact he had and still has.

In that respect, does it matter what was left out, if it wasn’t going to serve that story? Biopics shouldn’t be warts and all illustrations of everything that really happened. They should take an element of the subject, and use that to tell a wider story. Here it’s a story about America, about rock and roll, about who makes art, and who profits from it — at what cost.


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