With Baz Luhrmann’s big, glossy Elvis rocking the box office this weekendfans of the Austin Butler and Tom Hanks-starring biopic may be curious if there are any other worthwhile movies about the pop culture icon. As it turns out, there was another star-studded Elvis movie, and it was surprisingly recent, too. 2016’s Elvis & Nixon is a peculiar, vastly under-seen comedy that serves as a fun companion piece to the new film.
Elvis & Nixon stars Michael Shannon as Presley, while Kevin Spacey plays the 37th U.S. President. The movie recounts a bizarre true story about Elvis showing up at the White House one December morning in 1970, requesting a meeting with Nixon. Virulently opposed to hippies and their drug-fueled counter-culture, Elvis hoped to get deputized into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (a precursor of the DEA). But the biggest obstacle, at least according to the movie, was convincing the famously curmudgeonly Nixon to see him.
Despite both movies having “Elvis” in the title, their approaches to the legendary musician couldn’t be less alike. Whereas Austin Butler embodies Presley in three dimensions, Shannon plays him as a diluted, out-of-touch celebrity stereotype. For example, in an early scene, Elvis shows up at an airport in the middle of the night, hoping to hop on a flight to D.C. armed with a diamond-encrusted handgun. Additionally, Luhrmann’s career-spanning epic is on a very different scale than Elvis & Nixon, which takes place over a single day, mostly in office rooms. Director Liza Johnson was clearly uninterested in covering all aspects of Elvis’ life, focusing instead on one strange story of two rich and powerful men grappling with their own waning influence.
The biggest surprise is the amount of empathy Johnson’s movie grants Elvis and Nixon. Both men had reached the very top of their respective spheres — music and politics, respectively — only to be rendered ‘squares’ in the face of the social changes of the 1960s. The film proposes Elvis’ futile crusade against hippies came from a childish desire to stay relevant, and there’s something comforting in the realization that these god-like historical figures can be as insecure and petty as anyone else. In that way, Elvis & Nixon may actually be the
more humanizing depiction of the two movies.
Unfortunately, the star wattage of Shannon and Spacey (with supporting roles from Johnny Knoxville and X-Men’s Evan Peters) and decent reviews did not translate into box office receipts. Even against a relatively small $10 million budget, the movie only made about $2 million in its theatrical run. While generally well-received by critics, many felt it lacked the “importance” one would expect from a story about the two of the most important American figures of the 20th century. However, that was arguably the point: the film’s absurd charm comes from how it deflates these larger-than-life figures.
Anyone wondering why Luhrmann left such a wild tale out of his own extensive biopic can rest easy, as it was shot and exists in the original four-hour cut. So, while waiting for a potential “Luhrmann Cut,” fans can fill the void, as Elvis & Nixon is available on Amazon Prime. And those who check it out might be pleasantly surprised by its witty writing and great performances, with Shannon’s goofy, self-absorbed version of Presley acting as a fascinating counterpoint to Butler’s star-making performance.