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Baz Luhrmann’s remarkable Elvis treats its subject as a serious artist, rejecting the impulse to portray him as a grotesque clown. July 8, 2022
Arts and Culture

Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann (Warner Bros., 159 minutes)

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a Hollywood rock ’n’ roll biopic that transcends its genre and elevates its subject. Filming in his characteristically manic, oversaturated, and operatic mode, Luhrmann in the figure of Elvis Presley meets the material that his style was made for. Even before his apotheosis as rock’s first demigod, the 20-year-old Elvis shattered conventions of music, race, and sexuality. No standard filmic narrative could capture his iconic cultural significance or his astounding charisma as brilliantly as Luhrmann does in Elvis. This is a remarkable movie that treats its subject as a serious artist, rejecting the impulse to portray him as a grotesque clown or idiot.

Elvis is framed around the figure of Colonel Tom Parker, the impresario who discovered, managed, marketed, and arguably murdered Elvis Presley through his dictatorial, demoralizing control of the singer’s life and career. Played deliciously by Tom Hanks—who clearly relishes the opportunity to be cast against his usual good-guy type—Parker is portrayed as a corpulent, evil schemer who manipulates and exploits his client with a sharp talent for playing on Elvis’ fears and anxieties. Parker narrates the film as a self-pitying apologia for an entrepreneur who never wanted anything but the best for his protégé, whom he identifies as his other, better self.

Luhrmann casts the partnership between Elvis and Parker as a Faustian bargain, set against a spooky carnival backlot out of Fellini. Parker, who claimed to be from West Virginia, was an illegal immigrant from Holland who worked freakshows and sideshows and managed country music acts, including Hank “I’ve Been Everywhere” Snow. Parker’s lack of a passport and fear of deportation are reportedly the reasons why he blocked Elvis from performing in Europe, Saudi Arabia, or Japan, despite lavish offers of cash. On hearing of Elvis’s death, Parker supposedly insisted that he would “go on managing him,” and told marketing partners to prepare for increased demand for Presley-branded merchandise, a forecast that proved out richly. His vision of Elvis as an infinite source of passive income and automatically recurring contracts resembles something out of Dante. Elvis suggests that Parker is doomed to a hellish afterlife wandering around a deserted casino, desperately pulling at defunct slot machines.

Elvis himself is played in a shockingly uncanny appearance by Austin Butler, whose now-blooming stardom seems to have emerged out of nowhere. His brief, brilliant turn as Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood notwithstanding, Butler had floated along in cable television series, including teen heartthrob guest appearances on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, but he explodes into deserved fame in his representation of Elvis, whom he seems at times to reanimate. His singing and dancing are faithful to the original, and he captures Elvis’s diffident, brooding sensual appeal, sly wit, and emotional restlessness.

Luhrmann’s cinematic style is not for everyone. Characterized by rapid cuts, zooms, hyperkinetic camerawork, and the anachronistic interpolation of contemporary music into a period narrative, Luhrmann is criticized—sometimes fairly—for making movies for the Adderall generation. But Elvis is not just juicy eye-candy. The movie carefully unfolds its subject by layers, and when Elvis finally is shown in full flower, the effect is stunning. Presley the historical man was a revelation. He demonstrated the power of television. He embodied the revolutionary influence of rock ‘n’ roll and effectively pioneered a new chapter in musical history. And he, along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, offered America a new definition of masculine sexuality, tinged with vulnerability and softness, but the virility of which was somehow magnified, not diminished, by its hint of femininity.

One of the best aspects of Elvis is the way it treats race. The woke line on Elvis Presley for the last 30 or 40 years is that he “stole,” or at least self-consciously refashioned, “black music,” orienting it for a white audience—what such critics call “cultural appropriation.” This sentiment—which, incidentally, is almost never repeated by anyone who knows anything about the history of American music—is grievously wrong and is often packaged with the scurrilous lie that Elvis was a vicious racist, a slander for which there is zero evidence. Elvis displays how Presley moved easily between black and white vernacular modes, which coexisted and overlapped for generations throughout the South. Elvis grew up poor in northeast Mississippi, living alone with his mother in a black neighborhood while his father served a prison sentence for forging a check; his primary friends were black for a substantial period of his early life.

It’s convenient to imagine the segregated South as cleanly divided between black and white, but the truth is that the natural human inclination to mix made segregation infeasible without racist laws to enforce it. Elvis was saturated in a hybrid Southern musical culture, a crosshatch of country, gospel, and the blues. He evidently attended the church of W. Herbert Brewster, a pastor and eminent composer of black gospel music, and sang with the choir while he was in high school. Brewster himself, who encouraged black and white Memphians alike to attend his services, described Elvis as having “the kind of voice . . . that agreed with the thought of Calvary. He had that kind of bent, and inclination, and attitude that suggested that God could use him.”

Luhrmann shows Presley’s comfort with black culture and black people and, as importantly, their comfort with him. Elvis has always had black fans; only people with a racial ax to grind make a fuss about him and his alleged theft of black music. As the great soul singer Jackie Wilson famously explained, “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied from Elvis.” It’s true that Presley’s biggest hit “Hound Dog” was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952, but it’s equally true that the tune was written for Thornton—for whom it was also a massive hit— by the teenage, Jewish, Los Angeles songwriting duo of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The reality of American musical culture is that it’s a shared heritage of which we all have common ownership. You can’t steal what’s already yours.

Photo by Jeremy Chan/Getty Images

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