It’s been almost a decade since Baz Luhrmann last had a film in cinemas – his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby – but the wait for a new movie from the Australian director is finally over thanks to Elvis.
An epic biopic of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the film charts its subject’s rise from carnival singer to pop culture icon to Las Vegas performer, touching on various aspects of his life including the influence of black music on his work, his romance with Priscilla Presley and his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
Besides Elvis himself, one person who is a constant presence throughout the film is Colonel Tom Parker – the King’s long-term manager who is played by Tom Hanks and is shown to be an extremely shady and manipulative figure who profited off his client’s talents in increasingly unethical ways.
Speaking about why he opted to frame the film from Parker’s perspective, Luhrmann explained to RadioTimes.com that it was due to the modern relevance “of these guys that would be quite proud about telling… I guess you call them lies.”
He added: “But really like, big, toxic positive lies – carnival selling.
“Well, you put that next to Elvis, who’s this incredibly vulnerable kid who grows up in one of the few white houses in the Black community – like Eminem.
“And it just seems to speak to right now, the tension between the carnival selling, the hucksterism, the snake oil bit, and then the vulnerable and the pure and honest.”
But who exactly was the real Colonel Tom Parker? Read on for everything you need to know.
Who was Col. Tom Parker?
Born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk – the seventh child of a delivery driver and housewife – Parker first arrived in the US as an illegal immigrant in 1929, when he was twenty years old.
Shortly after his arrival, he proceeded to create a whole new identity for himself, adopting the name Tom Parker and claiming to have been born in the US. In his early years in the country, he served for two years in the US army but was discharged when he was certified as a psychopath by a psychiatrist.
He then embarked on a career as a carnival worker before moving into music promotion in 1938, with his pre-Elvis clients including Gene Austin, a popular crooner, and a succession of country singers such as Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and Tommy Sands.
He gained the title of Colonel when he helped popular country and gospel singer Jimmie Davis in his campaign to be elected Governor of Louisiana, receiving the honorary rank as an award from Davis in 1948.
Parker’s first meeting with Presley came in early 1955 after he had heard his music on the radio and been impressed by his rather different singing style – initially assuming him to be black.
At that time, Memphis radio personality Bob Neal was serving as Presley’s manager, but he soon found he was struggling to have enough time to promote his client and so after a meeting between Parker and Presley in February 1955, the Colonel began to take some control of bookings and promotions.
For a time, Parker and Neal worked together, with Parker becoming “special advisor” to Elvis by the summer of 1955 – which came with the responsibility of securing him a new recording contract with a bigger label.
By March 1956 – when Presley’s existing contract with Neal expired – Parker became his sole representative and with a new recording contract from RCA Victor, Elvis’ career went from strength to strength, with his first single Heartbreak Hotel released to huge success later that year.
During their partnership, Parker received more than half of Elvis’ income – and in turn, he negotiated various merchandising deals, TV appearances and acting roles for his client as well as advising him on other areas of his life, including his decision to accept military service in 1958 and to marry Priscilla Beaulieu in 1967.
He also pushed him toward making film musicals the main focus of his career in the ’60s as well as playing a major role in his 1968 comeback – and although their meetings were fairly limited after this point, he was still listed as Elvis’ manager until the star’s death in 1977.
Even after Presley’s death, Parker continued to manage his estate – but partly due to the fact that he’d sold the rights to all the early recordings, and in part because of a major gambling addiction – he struggled to make ends meet.
His woes were compounded in 1980, when a judge found that his management had been unethical, and it also emerged that Presley had lost out on millions of dollars worth of royalties for songs he’d written due to Parker’s decision not to sign him up to The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
In the end, a case between the Elvis Presley Estate and Parker ended with the latter receiving $2 million dollars in exchange for all Presley audio recordings or visual images that he owned and the termination of his involvement in any Presley-related earnings for five years.
In January 1997, at the age of 87, he died in Las Vegas after a long battle with various health conditions including diabetes and gout. His funeral was attended by Elvis’ widow Priscilla, who delivered a eulogy in which she quipped: “Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better, and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet, because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I’m sure that the Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out.”