December 2022


Rock and a Hard Place

 Elvis, The Greatest Beer Run Ever

Miles David Moore


Two recent films—among many over the past decades--use rock music as an engine to their plots.  One of them, Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, uses the music boldly in a tale of the toxic co-dependency between Elvis Presley and his manager, Col. Tom Parker.  The other, Peter Farrelly's The Greatest Beer Run Ever, deploys rock songs from the 1960s in a movie that starts out as a jape but transforms into a powerful story that is half antiwar film, half tribute to America's fighting forces. 

Elvis Presley has now been dead longer than he was alive.  This seems scarcely credible given his ubiquity in pop culture, much of which was engineered by his tireless vulgarian of a manager.  Elvis has been played on screen by actors including Kurt Russell, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, with actors such as Nicolas Cage (Wild at Heart) and Val Kilmer (True Romance) playing Elvis-like characters.  But this is the first time to my knowledge that any film has placed the relationship between Elvis (played here by Austin Butler) and Parker (Tom Hanks) front and center.  One might debate whether Luhrmann is the right director to portray that tortured association, but Luhrmann—who glories in visual excess—seizes the chance to batter the audience with every conceivable over-the-top image from Memphis, Hollywood, and especially Las Vegas during Elvis' glory days.

The story begins in 1954, when Parker—an illegal Dutch immigrant and former carnival worker—is managing country superstar Hank Snow (David Wenham).  Through Snow's son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) Parker learns of a sensational new singer recording on Sam Phillips' Sun Records label.  Parker is skeptical, but goes anyway to a taping of Louisiana Hayride where the new singer is appearing.  There, Parker is thunderstruck.  "He sounds black," the screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner has him say.  "But he's white!"


According to Luhrmann, it was Parker, not Elvis, who was "a flat-out racist, simple and plain," to quote Public Enemy.  Whereas Elvis (according to Luhrmann) enjoyed friendly relationships with singers such as B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Parker strove to tamp down his hip swiveling and put him in Christmas sweaters.  The low point for Elvis was his appearance on The Steve Allen Show, where he was forced to sing "Hound Dog" to a basset hound.

Like most movies based on true stories, Elvis plays fast and loose with
facts.  Elvis was not forced to enter the Army on pain of going to jail, and he did not fire Parker onstage in Vegas.  But most of the movie comes close enough.  Elvis provides a convincing scenario for the way Parker twined himself inextricably into Elvis' career and life like kudzu in a cotton field.  It also is persuasive on why Parker dissuaded Elvis from touring abroad and kept him tied to Las Vegas: Parker, as an illegal alien, would never have been allowed back into the U.S., while having Elvis perform show after show in Vegas was a good way of repaying Parker's gambling debts.

Among Luhrmann's films, Elvis is somewhere between The Great Gatsby, his best film to date, and the unwatchable Moulin Rouge.  Elvis has some exciting sequences but is both too much and—at two hours and 40 minutes—too long.  At times you feel as if you're trapped in a slot machine, although the photography of Mandy Walker and the production design of Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy are compelling.  Among the actors, the only outstanding one is Hanks.  At first, with his pot belly and florid Dutch accent, Hanks' Parker seems like a knockoff of Hogan's Heroes' Sgt. Schultz.  But later, when big money is at stake, Hanks suddenly becomes Casablanca's Maj. Strasse, putting the screws to his recalcitrant meal

As for Butler, his onstage moves look authentic and his singing (which is blended with actual Presley recordings) is commendable.  His acting is recessive, even puppylike, although it is historically accurate to have Elvis be mostly passive with Parker.  Butler does have some touching moments with Helen Thomson, as Elvis' mother Gladys, and some with Olivia de Jonge as his wife Priscilla.  Otherwise, it's Hanks' show—and Luhrmann's.

After the excess of Luhrmann's film, it is refreshing to turn to a movie with a more human aspect such as The Greatest Beer Run Ever.  Based on the memoirs of John "Chickie" Donohue, Farrelly's film tells an incredible story about a quixotic ne'er-do-well whose quest to see his soldier buddies in Vietnam becomes much more of a learning experience than he expected.


The Greatest Beer Run Ever begins in Brooklyn in 1967.  Chickie (Zac Efron), a merchant seaman between ships, is content to sponge off his disgusted parents, sleep till noon every morning and bum beers off his friends at his neighborhood hangout.  The bar's owner (Bill Murray), known to everyone as the Colonel, is an old-fashioned, flag-waving patriot, as are Chickie and most of his friends.  They are disgusted by antiwar protesters—which, to Chickie's horror, include his sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis)—and they are hurting because they have friends fighting in Vietnam.  Their anger grows when they learn that one of their friends was killed in action, and another, Tommy Minogue
(Will Hochman), is MIA. 

One day the Colonel says offhandedly that he'd like to go to Vietnam and buy each soldier a beer.  Chickie, boastful as always, replies that he will go to Vietnam himself with a knapsack full of Pabst Blue Ribbon, seek out his friends, and give them each a drink.  At first nobody takes Chickie
seriously, but after Tommy's mother (Kristin Carey) gives him a rosary to give to Tommy, Chickie feels honor-bound to go. 

Chickie—as his sister notes—spent his Army service playing cards in a barracks in Massachusetts.  Consequently, he is unprepared for what he finds in Vietnam, or how the war has changed his friends.  I will not describe everything he finds, but Chickie's troubles truly begin when he descends upon the 1st Cavalry Division to visit his pal Rick Duggan (Jake Picking).  Duggan has to run through 200 meters of enemy fire to get to Chickie, and Chickie is surprised that Duggan isn't exactly pleased to see him.  But that is nothing compared to Chickie's surprise that he has to run with Duggan back to his post—again strafed by enemy fire, but without a gun or body armor.  Chickie's problems, rest assured, grow worse from there.

Part of the impact of The Greatest Beer Run Ever comes from Farrelly's use of Top 40 hits from the period, by such semi-forgotten bands as the Association, the Electric Prunes, the Left Banke, and Tommy James and the Shondells.  The music can be energizing, laughable, or bitterly ironic, depending on the particular scene.  But "Cherish," the Association's biggest hit and a particular favorite of Chickie's, becomes something of an anthem by the end, an emblem of Chickie's courage and devotion.


The Greatest Beer Run Ever has a 91% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but only a 43% critical rating.  I am not sure why the divide is so stark, except that Vietnam remains a divisive issue a half-century after the war's end.  The film is not subtle, but it is solidly made and often moving, especially in its latter half, and Efron is wonderful as Chickie.  Chickie could have been caricatured as the naïve American blundering into matters he knows nothing about; that is certainly what Graham Greene or John le Carre would have made of him.  But Farrelly, the working-class optimist, treats him sympathetically, and Efron makes us care deeply about him.   Chickie is motivated by love of friends and country, but he is smart and sensitive enough to come to an understanding that his country's leaders sold him and his friends a bill of goods.  He says as much to Arthur Coates (Russell Crowe), the photojournalist who first mocks and then befriends Chickie.  "It's not the worst thing anyone ever did," Arthur says about Chickie's exploits.  "Neither is it the smartest."  Crowe, Murray, and Kristin Carey are standouts among the supporting cast, as is Kevin K. Tran as a Saigon policeman obsessed with the movie Oklahoma!

The Greatest Beer Run Ever transcends its farcical title.  It is set in a time of grievous divides between Americans which presaged the partisan conflicts of today.  Its message is humane, admonishing us that the lives of fighting men and women must never be put in harm's way for frivolous or spurious reasons.  The final scene, between Chickie and Christine, is one of reconciliation.  It is an object lesson for the present. Let us hope it is not a forlorn one.

Elvis is available on HBO Max, The Greatest Beer Run Ever on Apple TV+.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2022 Miles David Moore
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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