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The Real Story Behind Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’

The biographical musical drama tells the story of Elvis Presley’s relationship with his controlling, greedy manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Baz Luhrmann Elvis Movie
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 3rd, 2022

Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie.

The next movie by director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby) is a musical drama about Elvis Presley. Austin Butler starts as the so-called “King of Rock and Roll” in the biopic, which is simply titled Elvis.

It centers specifically on the relationship between Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Parker discovered Presley and managed the singer up through Elvis’ untimely death at the age of 42, in 1977. Here is a brief look at the real story of the music legend and his manager.

The Mysterious Colonel

While Elvis Presley’s name features as the title of Baz Luhrmann’s movie, Hanks tops the cast list as Colonel Tom Parker. So, let’s start there.

Parker was born in 1909 in the Netherlands. At the age of 19, he illegally immigrated to the United States via a shipping vessel, most likely through Canada, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine. Once in America, he served in the US military.

In the 1980s, more information began to come out about the man. He refused to leave the United States, even when he could have made millions of more dollars bringing Elvis around the world. He let the IRS handle his taxes. When asked, he told people he was born in Huntington, West Virginia.

And he wasn’t even a real colonel. While in the army, he served as a private, and his career “ended in ignominy,” according to Smithsonian. In 1932, he went absent and eventually served time for desertion. The magazine reports, “He was released only after he had suffered what his biographer Alanna Nash terms a “psychotic breakdown.”

Years later, when the draft was reinstated as part of World War II, Parker “ate until he weighed more than 300 pounds in a successful bid to have himself declared unfit for further service.”

A Murder?

Before we get to Tom Parker’s associations with Elvis Presley, here’s one more interesting and shocking tidbit from the Smithsonian article. Some believe Parker may have feared more than just his immigration status being found out. After all, Parker’s management of Presley made him a powerful man. He could have called the president himself. And “the Alien Registration Act of 1940 had offered an effective amnesty to all illegals.”

So what exactly was he hiding? Some speculate that Parker had, in fact, fled the Netherlands after committing a murder. A journalist received a tip that he had left the country without telling his family in May 1929. An anonymous letter said that he had murdered the wife of a greengrocer. After some digging, a journalist found that the murder had also occurred in May 1929. According to Smithsonian:

“And the spot where the murder had occurred was only a few yards away from what had been, in 1929, Parker’s family home. Members of the Colonel’s family even recalled that he had been paid to make deliveries for a greengrocer in the area, though they could no longer remember which one.”

Of course, no solid evidence was ever presented. But some people, including Parker biographer and journalist Alanna Nash, believe he did it.

The Colonel Discovers Elvis

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to Elvis Presley.

Colonel Tom Parker began managing musical acts in the late 1930s. At the time, crooners like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra were the major stars of the day. And Parker began trying to find singers to shape in that mold. Among those early stars under his management was Eddy Arnold. Parker moved with the singer to Nashville, where he began to build his reputation. In 1948, according to the New York Times:

“he wangled the honorary colonel’s title from Louisiana’s Governor, Jimmie Davis, and henceforth asked to be addressed as ‘Colonel.'”

It was not until 1955 that he heard about a kid named Elvis Presley. Parker wanted to skate to where the puck was going, not where it was, and Presley had a different style and tune that drew Parker in. Presley’s influences included performers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played in Luhrmann’s Elvis film by Yola) and Little Richard (played by Alton Mason).

At that time, Parker managed a singer named Hank Snow (played by David Wenham). He booked Presley as the opening act. A partnership was born.

The Colonel Brings Elvis to RCA

Elvis Presley began to regularly open for Hank Snow. And the Colonel got to work courting Presley’s parents and his then-manger, Bob Neal. Parker convinced them to let him provide professional guidance to young Elvis. Later that year, Presley agreed to bring on Parker as his advisor.

At the time, Presley had been recording songs with Sun Records, such as “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” It was at Sun that Presley met pioneers and influences like B.B. King (played in the film by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). But once Parker became officially involved, he began to organize Presley’s departure from Sun.

In November 1955, RCA Records purchased Presley’s contract for a then-shocking $35,000. It soon paid off. Presley’s first recording for RCA was the 1956 classic “Heartbreak Hotel.” The hit topped the charts for weeks and RCA sold millions of records. The King had arrived.

The Colonel Gets Elvis Everywhere

In 1956, Elvis Presley’s contract with Bob Neal ended, and he signed with Parker. The partnership was finally, fully official. According to the New York Times, the contract said Parker was the “sole and exclusive adviser, personal representative, and manager” to Presley.

It didn’t take long for Elvis Presley to be everywhere. The Ed Sullivan Show? Check. Merchandise? Check. A series of live performances in Las Vegas? A semi-check.

In 1956, on the heels of the release of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Presley had found massive, enthusiastic success around the country. The kids loved him. But when he went to the older crowd of Vegas, they didn’t quite know how to respond. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

“The consensus is that Las Vegas simply wasn’t ready for Elvis, but he may have found more success had he come a couple of years earlier.”

Vegas during that period was undergoing a transition, but it certainly would not be the last time they saw Elvis Presley. And that year wasn’t all bad for Presley. He signed a multi-picture deal with Paramount. And the song “Love Me Tender,” from the movie of the same name, was a massive hit.

Elvis Joins the Army

In 1958, Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army. And Parker saw an opportunity. He knew that this could help keep Presley interesting to the public. According to History:

“Colonel Tom Parker continued to release singles recorded before his departure, keeping the money rolling in and his most famous client fresh in the public’s mind.”

Presley’s tour of duty was scheduled to last for two years. He trained at Fort Hood in Texas and served in West Germany. He could have served in Special Services as a performer but declined, per the advice of those who said it would look better if he completed traditional service. While serving, Presley met then-14-year-old Priscilla Ann Wagner (played in the film by Olivia DeJonge). After a prolonged courtship, they married in 1967.

In March 1960, Presley was honorably discharged. He made a major return appearance two months later on The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis. The episode features a major cultural moment: a duet between Sinatra and Presley. The performance served as a kind of bridge between the heartthrobs of two generations.

And the best part? Elvis was paid $125,000 for the appearance. Or $1.17 million today.

Elvis in the 1960s and the Comeback

According to the New York Times, by 1964, Colonel Tom Parker had built Elvis Presley “into a commercial empire that was worth $35 million.” And he took high commissions too, sometimes taking as much as 50 percent. The control Parker exerted over Presley’s career has led some to refer to him as a “Machiavellian overseer.”

But as the 1960s went on, Presley’s fame began to fade. According to Rolling Stone:

“Elvis spent much of the 1960s churning out cheesy B-movies and lifeless soundtracks while new acts like the Beatles and Bob Dylan made him seem like a relic.”

Many blamed Parker, who took few risks and turned down a number of exciting opportunities on behalf of his client. Rumor has it Parker turned down the offer for Presley to play Tony in West Side Story. He supposedly did not think being a member of a gang would be good for Presley’s image.

But then in 1968, Elvis began what is often referred to as his “comeback.” He recorded a TV special, also simply titled Elvis, that featured a number of hits, including “Suspicious Minds.” That song was recorded earlier that year and is often considered one of, if not his finest work.

With the excitement following the TV special, Presley began to lean in more to live performances. In 1969, he tested the waters with a show in, of all places, Las Vegas. Before 2,000 people, he delivered “the performance of a lifetime.” Wearing his iconic costumed karate outfit, he gave the crowd everything they wanted.

Priscilla Presley writes in her memoir (via the Express):

“The most touching moment was when Colonel Parker arrived with tears in his eyes, wanting to know where ‘his boy’ was.”

The Later Years

The Las Vegas show sparked a renaissance for Elvis Presley. He began touring again, including at major venues like Madison Square Garden. Colonel Tom Parker negotiated higher rates. Life was good.

And then, on January 14, 1973, Presley recorded what turned out to be one of the final highlights of his career. He starred in Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, a live concert that made use of satellite technology to broadcast his performance to the world. He took his inspiration, in part, from President Richard Nixon’s broadcasted trip to China, during which Nixon restored normal diplomatic relations with the nation.

A Horrible Sale

Later that same year, things began to crumble. Parker negotiated a horrible deal on behalf of his client. According to Billboard, Elvis Presley’s entire catalog, a collection of more than 1,000 recordings, was sold for $5.4 million. It would become one of the most valuable archives in music. And perhaps most shocking of all: Presley’s estate would receive no royalties for his previously recorded work after his death.

The estate eventually filed a lawsuit against RCA and Parker after Presley’s death. A settlement was eventually reached in 1983. According to the New York Times, the estate was given $1.1 million, and Parker walked away with $2.2 million for “‘right, title, and interest in all Presley-related contracts.” Parker sold a number of Presley’s master records for another $1 million. The New York Times reports:

“The agreement followed a court battle by the estate’s co-executors against Colonel Parker on grounds of massive fraud and mismanagement of Mr. Presley’s business interests.”

A Star is Born

By the mid-1970s, Presley was suffering from drug use. He was in a slump and lost. But then he got offered a great opportunity. Barbara Streisand asked him to star in A Star is Born, to be released in 1976. Presley, according to reports, was deeply excited by the role and the chance to restart his career.

But then Parker got in the way. He demanded that Presley be paid $1 million to star in the role. He also wanted 50 percent of the film’s profits. Streisand, understandably, declined and move on.

The Final Years

In Elvis Presley’s final years, he was offered the chance to play abroad in various countries for millions of dollars. But Colonel Parker refused. Again, the speculation about his immigrant status and background got in the way.

On August 16, 1977, Presley died of heart disease. He was only 42. Even in death, Parker continued to exert control over Presley’s likeness and career. According to a 1997 report in the Washington Post:

“When the singer died in August 1977, the first thing Parker told an associate was: ‘This won’t change anything.’ And even as Presley was undergoing an autopsy in Memphis, Parker was putting the finishing touches on a souvenir merchandise deal, the final chapter in his client’s transformation from cultural oddity to commercial commodity.”

In the years that followed, Parker continued to manage Presley. And legal battles like the one mentioned above ensued. People began to find out more about him. And on January 21, 1997, Parker died at the age of 87. The aforementioned Washington Post article described him as such:

“His stranglehold on Elvis Presley’s career earned Colonel Tom Parker a pot of money but ruined one of the century’s greatest acts.”

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis hits theaters on June 24, 2022.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.