The Strange Love Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley
As ‘Elvis’ arrives in theaters (starring Tom Hanks as Parker), director Baz Luhrmann tells AARP about one of music’s most intense relationships
One of the top 10 premieres at the May 17-28 Cannes Film Festival is Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated Elvis, starring Austin Butler as the singer who ushered in rock and roll, and Tom Hanks, 65, as his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The Dutch-born Parker (real name: Andreas van Kuijk) never became an American citizen and had no passport to tour Elvis abroad, so he had to find creative ways to reach Presley’s global audience. The film arrives in theaters June 24.
Luhrmann, 59, known for fast-paced, vividly colorful, highly musical films (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby), tells AARP how he saw the interplay between the pompadoured performer and the manager who marketed the King and then stole his crown.
What drew you, as an Australian, to the Elvis saga?
In the ’70s, when I was growing up in a tiny country town [Herons Creek, New South Wales] not too dissimilar to Tupelo, the Sunday matinee in the small cinema my family ran was always an Elvis movie. Elvis’ famous white jumpsuit was an inspiration for the Latin costumes my grandmother made me for ballroom dancing. I’ve always been fascinated at how Shakespeare took a life and used it as a canvas to explore a larger theme, and Elvis was the perfect canvas on which to explore America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He really was at the center of the culture.
What is the inherent drama of the Presley-Parker relationship?
My takeaway as the ultimate outsider is that the Presley-Parker relationship is probably the real love story. Not that there isn’t a great and genuine romance between Elvis and Priscilla [his wife], but the love story that soars brilliantly, but gets a little too close to the sun and tumbles, is Elvis and the Colonel. It’s almost a codependent marriage that, while toxic and destructive, cannot be unwound.
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Do you paint the Colonel as a villain?
Perhaps the bad guy, he was also a creative genius. He invented so many things, from the incredibly intense use of music merchandise to the satellite concert [Aloha from Hawaii, 1973]. What a brilliant thought, motivated, of course, by keeping Elvis inside America.
Why does Tom Hanks have a much stronger accent than Parker did in real life?
I found it interesting that Parker became obsessed with tape recorders and started taping himself. I spent many hours at Graceland listening to those obscure tapes. His accent changed dramatically depending on what situation he was in. What a gargantuan personality he was — he’d walk into a room and suck all the air out of it, using humor to manipulate and control. You couldn’t back away from the enormity of the character. So I thought it was very important that Hanks present the audience with a strangeness: “What is going on with this guy?”
In the trailer, Parker says to Elvis, “We are the same, you and I. We are two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity.” Were they?
Yes. Both were born with a gift, a prodigious imagination, and an ability to absorb what’s around them and invent. Andreas van Kuijk was definitely lonely and odd, continuously searching. And definitely Elvis as a child was lonely and, according to the way he was treated by the other children, odd. And anyone who knew Elvis knew he was searching and never stopped searching until the end of his life — spiritually, physically and creatively.
How much of the narrative revolves around 1968, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King?
I always say: no issue of race in America, no Elvis. The fact that he grew up in one of the few white houses in a Black community allowed him to be around a young group of African American kids and his great love, spiritual gospel. I tracked down Sam Bell, an African American childhood friend of Elvis. And [Elvis entourage member] Jerry Schilling told me how they’d been filming when King was shot. Elvis just collapsed holding his guitar, rocking back and forth, and he said the very quote that’s in the movie: “Dr. King, he always spoke the truth.”
1968 was also the year of Elvis’ “Comeback Special.” Why was that show so important?
Parker had gone out of his way to disconnect Elvis from Black music, to reinvent him as a wholesome movie star. In 1968, the Colonel had decided to do a giant farewell to Hollywood, and basically the idea was to turn Elvis into a type of Bing Crosby with a Christmas special. Those who loved Elvis quietly expressed their concern, and in his very internal, discreet, Elvis-y way, he found himself insisting upon the director, Steve Binder, and his associates Bones Howe and the conductor William Goldenberg, to create the show. They launched, under the nose of the Colonel, a great subversive move, and invented the first “Unplugged” session, which brought Elvis back in front of an audience. Most important, Elvis was able to explore his profound and deep love of the music he loved the most.
Your films often end in tragedy. What’s the unraveling of Elvis’ story?
Elvis is no saint, but he was a deeply spiritual, creative person. Towards the end of his life, he didn’t know that the Colonel was plotting to keep him in Las Vegas partially for the Colonel’s gambling addiction. The Colonel represented the monetization, commercialization, the branding of Elvis. The sell — the marketing, the making of money — became dominant over the new, the authentic. And that always begets tragedy. That actually motivated me to commit to doing this film.
Did the Colonel see Elvis as an extension of himself?
Elvis really does embody the spirit of American pop culture. But you mention Colonel Tom Parker and no one knows who he is. And that’s perhaps the Colonel’s greatest pain. People would ask him, “What percentage do you get from Elvis’ money?” And he’d reply, “You mean how much does he get from mine?” I guess from the Colonel’s point of view, the question would be, “How much do you think Tom Parker is responsible for Elvis’ success?” You can’t answer that question. But there’s no doubt that those two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity, needing to come together in the ’50s, ended up, for the good, the bad and the ugly, changing popular culture and leaving an imprint on history that is indelible.
Alanna Nash is the author of four books about Elvis, including The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley (Simon & Schuster), updated in 2022 with a new afterword.