'Elvis' true story: How historically accurate is the new biopic?

·Contributor
·7-min read
Elvis: How historically accurate is the Elvis Presley biopic? (Warner Bros./Getty)
Elvis: How historically accurate is the Elvis Presley biopic? (Warner Bros./Getty)

Arriving in IMAX and cinemas across the UK on 24 June, new biopic Elvis tells the story of Elvis Presley, the King of rock 'n' roll.

Every biopic walks the same tightrope, balancing fact with artistic license. But when the subject is a musical icon, one with millions of devoted fans around the world, how on earth do you keep them all happy?

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Elvis director, Baz Luhrmann, sees his latest extravaganza as “not really a biopic. It’s really for me about America in the 50s and 60s and 70s,” he explained at Cannes.

“If you want to talk about America in the 50s and 60s and 70s, at the centre of culture, for the good, the bad and the ugly, was Elvis.”

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

However, he aimed for historical accuracy in the film, while giving it his distinctive flair and style. “I’d say it’s my kind of film. But it’s more grounded and I guess, right out of the gate, more accessible to audiences.”

The film packs more than 20 years of the rock ‘n’ roll legend’s life into 2 hours and 39 minutes, from his rise to stardom, his military service and marriage to the Las Vegas years and his decline.

But how does it fair when it comes to painting an accurate picture?

Is Elvis historically accurate? An expert’s view

When the film’s first trailer arrived, Elvis expert Billy Stallings Spa Guy posted a video looking at its historical accuracy.

An acknowledged expert on The King — he runs the Tigerman Karate Dogo and Museum in Memphis, where Elvis practiced martial arts — he starts his commentary with “If you’re an Elvis purist, this movie — just like all the rest of the movies — is going to make you mad because there are going to be things in it that are not going to be accurate.”

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From the trailer, he singles out the Ferris wheel scene, when Elvis and Parker discuss going into partnership, saying it never took place.

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

He also states the moment when Elvis appears nervous before performing actually happened on totally different occasion, when he was about to record his first single.

And the Captain Marvel Jnr lightning bolt worn by the young Elvis is — he believes — 'artistic license', which is how it’s described by Parker in the film.

There are others, but he also confirms “the way they portray Elvis with the girls just falling over him and the huge crowds and them running after him, all of that is accurate.”

For him, the film overall as 'pretty darn beautiful' but doesn’t see it as being for “us Elvis purists. Who this is for, is for the younger generations that don’t know who Elvis is.

"This is going to make him iconic in their eyes.”

What have Priscilla and Lisa Marie said about Elvis?

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 21: (L-R) Harper Vivienne Ann Lockwood, Lisa Marie Presley, Priscilla Presley, Riley Keough, and Finley Aaron Love Lockwood attend the Handprint Ceremony honoring Three Generations of Presley's at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 21, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
(L-R) Harper Vivienne Ann Lockwood, Lisa Marie Presley, Priscilla Presley, Riley Keough, and Finley Aaron Love Lockwood. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Ex-wife Priscilla Presley and their daughter, Lisa Marie, have both been fulsome in their praise of the film, especially Austin Butler’s lead performance.

After seeing it in April, Priscilla posted her reaction on Facebook. “This story is about Elvis and Colonel Parker’s relationship.

"It is a true story told brilliantly and creatively that only Baz, in his unique artistic way, could have delivered. Austin Butler, who played Elvis, is outstanding.

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

"Half way through the film, Jerry [Elvis’s old friend, talent manager Jerry Schilling) and I looked at each other and said WOW!! Bravo to him …. he knew he had big shoes to fill. He was extremely nervous playing this part. I can only imagine.”

On Instagram, Lisa Marie described the film as “absolutely exquisite. Austin Butler channelled and embodied my father’s heart and soul beautifully. In my humble opinion, his performance is unprecedented and FINALLY done accurately and respectfully.”

Did Elvis want to be an actor?

Elvis Presley and Debra Paget in movie art for the film 'Love Me Tender', 1956. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)
Elvis Presley and Debra Paget in movie art for the film Love Me Tender, 1956. (20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Yes. His first screen test was in 1956, the year that started with his first number one single, 'Heartbreak Hotel'. In mid-November, he made his on-screen debut in Love Me Tender and went on to make a total of 31 films.

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He talks about his acting dreams in the film and some lines from his interview with Life magazine — “Look at Frank Sinatra. Until he added acting to singing, he found himself slipping downhill” – are used in the movie.

Elvis Presley in Change of Habit (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Elvis Presley in Change of Habit. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

But sadly, as we see, his films fell out of favour, audiences declined and his last one, Change Of Habit, was released in November 1969, just thirteen years after his debut.

There’s also a discussion about Presley starring in the 1976 re-make of A Star Is Born. He was in the running for the role for a while, but his health problems put paid to his acting return.

Did Elvis join the army?

(Original Caption) Friedberg, Germany: Wearing a serious expression, singer Elvis Presley points to his three stripes after he was promoted to acting Sergeant here January 20th. He was promoted from the rank of Specialist Fourth Class and the advancement carries no increase in pay.
Elvis Presley after he was promoted to acting Sergeant. (Getty)

Yes, and his star status meant huge publicity in December 1957 when he was drafted. The film only briefly touches on his early military service, concentrating on the death of his mother in the summer of the following year, but lingers over his time in West Germany afterwards.

While in uniform, he continued to receive sacks of adoring mail and the film shows him pursued by legions of fans. He met Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of a US Air Force captain, during this posting.

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)
Baz Luhrmann with Austin Butler on the set of Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

By the time he was honourably discharged from the Army in 1960, Elvis had reached the rank of sergeant and, after a lengthy courtship, he and Priscilla married in 1967.

Was Colonel Tom Parker really a colonel?

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  (AUSTRALIA OUT) USA  Photo of Colonel Tom PARKER and Elvis PRESLEY, with manager Colonel Tom Parker - posed, c.1956/1967  (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
Colonel Tom Parker with Elvis Presley c.1956/1967. (GAB Archive/Redferns)

No. And, as the film reveals, Parker’s past was shrouded in mystery and deception. Born Andrea Cornelis van Kuijk in The Netherlands in 1909, he was an illegal immigrant into the USA.

The Smithsonian Magazine mentions he may have fled there after committing a murder. He joined the army but was never a Colonel and, after leaving, worked in carnivals before branching out into talent management. Despite what is shown in the film, his origins weren’t revealed until the 1980s.

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

He was, as the film shows, behind Presley’s rise to fame but, as we also see, he made financial deals that were worth more to him than his client.

During a dramatic confrontation, Elvis refers to him taking 50% of his earnings and this is generally believed to be true.

So how accurate is Elvis?

(Original Caption) 2/8/1979-Hollywood, CA- Scene from the television movie
Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker listening as Elvis (Kurt Russell) records early in his career. (Getty)

While it’s his first biopic, Luhrmann isn’t the first to tackle The King’s life on screen. Until now, John Carpenter’s 1979 Elvis, with Kurt Russell in the title role, was the most notable.

Presley’s story is familiar but this is the biggest and boldest version yet and it’s one with an attention to detail that should please most fans.

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

Sure, there’s Luhrmann takes some creative liberties, but in the main the film plays it straight when it comes to the major facts of the story. It should satisfy even the most suspicious of minds.

Elvis is released in cinemas on 24 June. Watch a clip below.