HomeInterviewsOn Screen: Elvis Historian Talks New 'Elvis' Film

On Screen: Elvis Historian Talks New ‘Elvis’ Film

With any music biopic, there’s always the question of how truthful and accurate it is to the subject. To separate fact from fiction in the new Elvis Presley movie, Elvis historian Trina Young returns to 360°Sound. Last year, Young spoke with us about her fascinating book on Elvis’s military service, Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered. Young is also the author of Elvis and The Beatles (2018) and Elvis: Behind The Legend (2015).

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Elvis stars Austin Butler as The King of Rock and Roll and Tom Hanks as Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker. The film is told through the prism of Elvis’s complicated relationship with the Colonel. At the box office, Elvis has currently raked in nearly $100 million domestically and $64 million internationally. The film runs 2 hours and 39 minutes and is rated PG-13.

360°Sound: Overall, what did you think of Elvis? Did you like it?

Elvis historian Trina Young

Trina Young: I liked it, but I did not love it. I am happy that the film is bringing Elvis back into the spotlight that he deserves, and I think the attention to stylistic detail was great through the musical performances and wardrobe.

However, there are many myths and false stereotypes that have been floating around for years about Elvis in mainstream culture, so as an Elvis historian, I am concerned about some of the historical inaccuracies that will perpetuate some of these myths.

I did like the attention on Elvis’s childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, his interest in Beale Street in Memphis, and his interaction with Black artists. I also liked the focus on the public backlash to Elvis, and rock and roll music in general, because that is an important part of history.

Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his over-the-top productions, so I think some artistic license was to be expected with this film. That said, which historical inaccuracies particularly irked you?

I understand that with a limited amount of time, a filmmaker will take artistic license to move the story along. There were many inaccuracies regarding time and place of particular scenes. For example, the scene where Elvis and his entourage are up at the actual Hollywood sign in Los Angeles is quite creative, but not true. That “conversation” between Elvis and Steve Binder, producer of the ‘68 Comeback Special, took place inside and outside of Binder’s office on Sunset Boulevard.

Things like that don’t bother me so much as compared to the omission of the other women in Presley’s life, especially after his divorce from Priscilla, and the extremely brief attention to his Army years. The 3-minute segment about the two years that Elvis served in the Army was typical of most recounts of that period – where they sum it up by saying the only thing that happened then was that Elvis met Priscilla.

That is why I wrote my latest book, Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered, to bring attention to the many fascinating experiences and many more women that Elvis dated during that time. Not to mention the fact that he also had a serious girlfriend, Anita Wood, back in Memphis when he joined the Army and when he returned home.

Also bothersome is the fact that the only Memphis Mafia member Elvis had a conversation with in the film was Jerry Schilling, while omitting any interaction with the other guys. And when they played the “Viva Las Vegas” theme song and showed Priscilla, it was a reminder of the omission of Ann-Margret, who starred in the film with him.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley [Courtesy of Warner Bros.]
How was Austin Butler as Elvis?

I thought Austin Butler did a really great job as Elvis. He got the moves and mannerisms of Elvis down pat, and he even sang several of the early songs himself in the film. That is why I think Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie were so happy with the movie. Butler really put his heart into the role and that comes across.

I would argue that Butler is the best part of the film, because the storyline/script did not serve him well. What I felt was lacking from the film was a portrayal of what motivated and inspired Elvis to become a singer in the first place. The movie skips that part of Presley’s life when he auditions at Sun Studio, so we don’t really see where his passion comes from. To me, the film does not capture the essence of Elvis the person.

It is in stark contrast to a film like Nowhere Boy, which explored the teenage years of John Lennon and how and why he started his first group, The Quarrymen, which evolved into the Beatles. Even though there are inaccuracies in that film as well, I believe the viewer really gets an insight into Lennon’s essence and spirit. I don’t feel the same way about the Elvis movie.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker [Courtesy of Warner Bros.]
How was Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker?

While I have the utmost respect for Tom Hanks, I definitely did not like his accent in the movie, which did not come close to the real Colonel Parker. I know that was one of Baz Luhrmann’s “over-the-top” tools to use to emphasize that Parker was hiding his Dutch background.

I strongly disagreed with the evil aspect presented of Colonel Parker. Yes, he made mistakes with Elvis’ career, and yes, he made deals that benefitted himself, but he also did a lot of good things, which I discuss frequently in my book, Elvis and The Beatles.

For example, Parker was very helpful and gracious to other artists. He gave a lot of advice to The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, when they came over for their first American tour in 1964 – something you may not have expected with the rumor of “rivalry” between Elvis and The Beatles that was perpetuated in the media.

The Beatles thought Parker was a character, but they liked him and appreciated how he was getting top dollar for Elvis – something they had struggled with from their own manager’s lack of experience. Many people may not be aware that The Beatles actually approached Parker to be their manager after Epstein died in 1967, but he declined.

Unfortunately, the imbalanced portrayal of Colonel Parker in the Elvis movie only reinforces the false stereotype that he was an entirely bad influence on Elvis. For the many fans that believe this, they obviously don’t realize how important a manager is to an artist’s longevity. The Beatles broke up a few years after Epstein died because they couldn’t find another manager that they all agreed with which led to financial and legal disputes.

For younger generations, like Gen Z, this may be their introduction to Elvis. Do you think this did The King justice for viewers who went in not knowing much about him? And if another biopic is made, what would you like to see done differently? 

To add what I stated earlier, I also felt like the film omitted the fun side of Elvis, and the charitable side of him. There was so much drama surrounding Elvis in the film, and very little fun. To me, it made it seem like Elvis hated every minute of his career.

As Billy Smith, Presley’s 79-year-old cousin, has stated about the film: “To see somebody that depressed and that controlled, to hear these people (the filmmakers) tell it, that’s not leaving much of an impression on young fans to me.”

His wife, Jo Smith, went even further saying: “I feel that they did not portray the Elvis we knew, or even Colonel Parker… I think, to me, they betrayed Elvis. If Elvis were here today, I think he would be really pissed off that he would go down in history to look like he was such a downer – such a down person.”

I am happy that the film is attracting a lot of younger fans, but I hope they take the time to find out more about Elvis and see what a multi-faceted person he was. If a future film is made, I hope that it gets across the fact that Elvis lived an extraordinary life and had an extraordinary career, and although Elvis died young, he enjoyed being Elvis Presley.

You can find Trina Young’s books on Amazon in print & Kindle editions: Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered (2021), Elvis and The Beatles (2018), and Elvis: Behind The Legend (2015).

To sign up for Young’s exclusive Elvis newsletter, head over to Elvisbiography.net.

While you’re here, have a look at our interview with Trina Young when her Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered book came out in 2021:

Author Talk – ‘Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered’


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