The life of Elvis Presley is complicated and bittersweet. It hit soaring heights and crushing lows. Elvis, the 2022 biopic on his life, tells the legendary musician’s story from the view of his former manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The film doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of Elvis’s fame, and it highlights the particularly fraught relationship between the musician and his manager
The film has something to teach us about discernment, as Elvis is faced with major decisions at several critical junctions of the film. Some of those are discerned well and others poorly. 1
We first meet Elvis in 1954 when he has just released a hit cover of “That’s All Right” and works as a truck driver in Mississippi. On some nights, he takes the local stage, where his presence and signature dance moves excite every girl in the audience. He draws from country, blues, and gospel music to create a unique talent (one bolstered by the fact that he’s a white man able to produce his sound).
At this point, Colonel Parker approaches Elvis and offers to take him on tour. Here, Elvis is faced with his first major decision. He wants to support his family, and he has to choose between the stable job of being a truck driver or the risky opportunity to be a musician on the road. Even though he faces resistance from his family, he ultimately decides to go on the road because it offers a chance to support his family more financially. Rooted in care for his parents, he seems to make a good discernment.
This choice sets in motion the events of the rest of the film. Elvis becomes more and more popular and is able to help his parents afford a new house. But Elvis’ style causes more controversy. His dance moves, seen as overtly sexual and lewd by the entertainment industry leave Elvis in a precarious situation. He can either choose to mute his dancing and adopt the “New Elvis” persona or he can stay true to himself, even if it costs him his musical career or potentially land him in jail.
Continually, Elvis has to choose between money bought at a humiliating price and being more authentic to his own artistic expression. For example, He famously sang “Hound Dog” in front of a literal dog to perform on the Steve Allen Show, an event Elvis called the most humiliating moment of his life. And, in a memorable scene in which Elvis opts for authenticity, he defies expectations and performs the song “Trouble” to excite his fans and mortify the authorities present.
After a two-year stint in the Army, Elvis returns to the US, and, under Colonel Parker’s guidance, Elvis goes to Hollywood and starts acting in movies. While this is financially successful, it turns out to be a poor decision. Elvis notices his reputation worsening and he himself is growing bored with the movie business. In 1968, he and Colonel Parker agree to produce a television special, and Elvis is faced with the choice of what kind of special to make.
Colonel Parker tries to push Elvis towards a safe and marketable performance focusing on Christmas. A new creative team, however, suggests that he go back to his own music and perform in his own style. Elvis again chooses to be true to himself as a musician. However, a more important decision presents itself as the tragedies of 1968 unfold..
That year, the United States experienced many tragic and violent losses, among them the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. Elvis first learns about the deaths of these two men while he’s recording in the studio. As he watches the news, one of the members of his new creative team tells him that he needs to make a statement to help the country heal, and so Elvis decides to close the show with the song “If I Can Dream,” a stirringly powerful protest song.2
Elvis returns to performing, and everything seems to be going well. He is married and has a daughter. Troubles begin when Elvis expresses interest in performing overseas. Colonel Parker does not want to let Elvis do so for a number of personal reasons: Colonel Parker was not really an American citizen, had large gambling debts, and operated under the false name of Parker. In terms of Ignatian discernment, it’s obvious to see that Parker is motivated by the false spirit, who motivates people through greed and always seeks to operate in secret. Elvis leaving would mean that Parker would lose out on the money the performer brought in. And so Elvis has to choose again between accepting Parker’s offer for a grueling U.S. tour or leaving the manager behind to venture off into Europe. Unfortunately for Elvis, he decides to do the grueling U.S. tour.
Even when Elvis tries to leave Parker behind, dramatically “firing” him on stage, Parker writes up an invoice for the performer for everything Elvis owed him through the years in order to manipulate Elvis into keeping him as his manager. If Elvis leaves him, Parker threatens, then the musician would be bankrupt. Coercion and fear are never good guides for decision-making, yet Elvis succumbs to Parker’s threats.
And so Elvis chooses to perform. In an attempt to perform to his best, Elvis becomes addicted to pills and drugs which he takes to help him to relax after his performances. As a result, his marriage breaks down, and soon thereafter his performances slowly deteriorate. Despite the warning signs to his health, Elvis’s inability to step down from the stage ultimately costs him his life at the age of 42.
Elvis Presley leaves behind a great musical legacy, one notably advantaged by being white in the South and drawing on many great black artists. His life story is complicated and tragic and is an example of the destructive power of greed. Colonel Parker manipulated and used Elvis for his own ends. In turn, the world lost a musical legend with many more years of music in him. More importantly, however, is that Elvis lost his life, his wife lost her husband, and his daughter lost a father. I can’t help but wonder how common this destructive pattern continues to play out for the popular musicians of our day, many of whom we see tragically die at young ages. One can hope that watching the biopic will help people realize that our musical idols are not immortal—they’re in need of good guides and struggle to make healthy decisions like the rest of us.
Even though the end of this film is hard to watch, it’s a moving tribute to the Graceland star’s life whose music continues to excite millions of fans. Thank you, Elvis. Thank you very much.