Despite living in an age where monikers such as ‘icon’ and ‘legend’ are dished out clumsily to often unworthy recipients, one can attach such titles to the subject of Baz Luhrmann’s latest film without fearing they too have adopted the hyperbolic tendencies of their contemporaries. Elvis is a not unfamiliar tale of rise and fall told through the eyes not of the man himself, but his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), in a comparable fashion to the way in which Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway told the story of the title character in Luhrmann’s 2013 film, The Great Gatsby.
While Luhrmann’s narrator in Gatsby spoke of the film’s subject in awe and curiosity, Colonel Parker is a markedly more nefarious presence, a man who immediately views Elvis as a walking gold mine, a precious resource from which every last ounce of profit must be extracted while the going is good. Predictably, such an attitude cannot coexist with a healthy regard for a person’s wellbeing and while Parker’s laser-focused approach propels Elvis to superstardom and astronomical levels of wealth, it also turns out to be his ruin. Manipulated by Parker into shunning a world tour and taking up a five-year Las Vegas residency, Elvis finds himself trapped; a man who for all his talent, fame, and fortune, is at the mercy of his boss, with little more autonomy than he had in his days as a truck driver, prior to fame. And it is only when he tries desperately to reclaim ownership of his life as everything is crumbling around him that he realises the full extent of Parker’s treachery.
It is an all too familiar story of a generational talent being used and exploited by the morally bankrupt in the name of profit. A story that tells of the joy and beauty of talent and the heartlessness of the business that surrounds its management. 45 years on from Elvis’ death, one would like to think the practices of those involved in talent management have changed. But one look at how human beings have continued to exploit at every possible opportunity in the intervening years, with our treatment of the natural world being a case in point, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the latest emerging superstar within the music industry isn’t simply viewed by the dealmakers as the ripest fruit on the talent tree, ready to be picked and squeezed for all it is worth.
Portraying the destructive nature of a profit first, consequences second approach, the film’s release in the midst of an ever-worsening climate crisis seems apt.
In this year that has reminded us all of the devastating consequences of war, we find ourselves inundated with numbers concerning the dead or wounded on a daily basis. While wars inevitably reduce those involved to statistics, the consequences for the individuals harmed and those around them can never be understated. Born On The Fourth Of July, the film adaptation of the harrowing true story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic serves as an emphatic reminder of the irrevocable destruction that war can inflict on the life of an individual.
A teenager who excels both in the sporting and social arena, Ron (played by Tom Cruise) appears to have a wonderful future in front of him. But he is also wedded to the institution of the United States. Placing his faith in its core tenets of patriotism and Christianity, he is determined to ‘stop the communists from taking over.’ And it is these values, which Ron has at no point willingly acquired but been born into, that ultimately shape his future for the worst. For after signing up for Vietnam, Ron soon finds himself back on American soil and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Attempting to cope with the impact of PTSD, the reactions of those around him upon his return, changing domestic attitudes towards the war, and his own irreversible limitations, Ron is enveloped by frustration, rage, and hopelessness leading him into sordid environments from which there appears to be no return to the wholesome sun-filled days that once comprised his life. But through all of the pain he endures, one thing becomes very apparent to Ron: he and many other young men were sent to war for no good reason, only to either never return or return with their life quality diminished beyond recognition. But in the darkness of his reality, Ron finds purpose and subsequently makes it his mission to speak out against the ills of war, in order to protect future generations from all that he has suffered.
Watching Ron’s often horrifying story play out, I was hit with the sad realisation that there will, unfortunately, be many other Ron Kovics in the world today: young men seeking their way in life taken in by some grandiose tale about victory over evil forces threatening to ruin the world, only to find themselves standing on the side of tyranny on the battlefield. How many of those in the Russian forces I wonder, not necessarily through their own personal failings but as a result of the conditions they have lived in, take the view that Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is justified? Sadly, nearly half a century on from the end of the Vietnam War, there are still young impressionable men being sent out as cannon fodder, mere pieces on a chessboard to the powers that command them.