Elvis: A Cinematic Biography of the Legendary Musical Artist

Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner

Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis is a musical biography of legendary rock and roll performer Elvis Presley (skillfully played by Austin Butler in the film). It attempts to address the full spectrum of Presley’s life, including his difficult childhood in Mississippi, his rise to international musical stardom, and his personal and artistic decline, culminating in his untimely death.

Austin Butler in Elvis

The filmmakers made the unusual choice to tell Presley’s story largely through the eyes of ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker (born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk), the Dutch music manager and former carnival peddler who managed (and badly managed) Presley’s career. Parker (Tom Hanks) is the film’s narrator, and the rocky relationship between the musician and the businessman is one of the film’s central concerns.

Elvis covers several episodes. As a young man, Presley’s family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression and settled in a neighborhood of mostly poor African Americans. A young Presley is deeply marked by the music of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, as well as a chance encounter with upbeat gospel music. As a young man, he spent his free time listening to music played by African-American artists on famed Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, earning him the scorn of white racists in his neighborhood.

Parker sees Presley perform at a Louisiana Hayride event and immediately recognizes his potential as a musical actor. He convinces Presley to hire him as his manager and sole representative. Presley’s rousing early performances drew raucous crowds and made him the target of racist attacks from segregationist forces, including Mississippi Democratic Senator James Eastland, who accused Presley of being part of a plot to “spread Africanized culture” and “influencing your children to accept Negroes”. .” In a pivotal scene, Presley’s energetic performance inspires a racially separated audience to break down the barriers between them and mingle with the crowd.

Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Elvis

At Parker’s request, Presley joined the military to avoid legal persecution by reactionary elements. When he reappears, he enters a new stage in his personal and artistic life, marked by new complications. He lost his beloved mother to alcoholism. He begins a relationship with Priscilla Beaulieu (Olivia DeJonge), who will become his wife. Professionally, Parker insists that Elvis adopt a new “family” image and coerce him into starring in a series of empty-headed films.

Presley hungers for more artistically fulfilling endeavours, especially in the wake of the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. He collaborated with young producer Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) to produce the hit 1968 television special that came to be known as Presley’s “comeback” show. Plans are made for an international tour, but Parker convinces Presley to move into a Las Vegas showroom. It is later revealed that Parker is unable to leave the country due to his status as a “stateless” immigrant, who fled his Dutch homeland for unspecified reasons.

Parker, whose treatment of Presley becomes increasingly abusive and parasitic, forces him to continue playing even as Presley’s health and mental well-being decline. The ending is well known and tragic.

Tom Hanks and Austin Butler in Elvis

Elvis Presley has been a figure of mass admiration and fascination for almost three quarters of a century. His dynamic musical talents, his ability to bring down the house with rock and roll power, as well as touch the heart with a sensitive ballad, have had a major impact on generations of musical artists, as evidenced by the number of contemporary rock, country and hip-hop artists who contributed songs to the film’s soundtrack.

At the same time, like so many popular musical artists who rise to the heights of stardom in the United States, Presley’s life ended in tragedy, as a victim of the immense pressures exerted on sensitive artists by the grueling and rapacious entertainment industry. A small selection of personalities who met similar fates would include Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and many more.

The question of what historical, social and psychological processes ultimately found expression in a figure like Elvis Presley is complex. Presley’s early experiences certainly played a role. Her father, Vernon, was a self-proclaimed “ordinary worker” in the impoverished East Tupelo, Mississippi area, and her mother, Gladys, worked at the Tupelo garment factory for $2 a day, working 12-hour days. , whose strain is likely contributed to the stillbirth of Presley’s twin brother, Jesse. The immense poverty experienced by the family undoubtedly instilled in Presley a feeling for the poor and downtrodden, which would later find expression in songs like “In the Ghetto”.

Despite Jim Crow segregation, young Presley fraternized with his black peers, especially when the family moved to a largely African-American section of Tupelo. The lively gospel music of the local black church that Presley attended made an indelible impression on the young people. As a teenager, Presley immersed himself in the music he heard on the radio and on records: blues, country, gospel and rhythm and blues – influences that formed the basis of the rock and roll music he would come to later. later popularize.

Presley’s own talents were well complemented by those of his bandmates, including guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. At the time of their first recordings, Elvis was a truck driver, Moore worked at a dry cleaner, and Black was a worker at a Firestone tire factory. As the WSWS noted in an appreciation of Moore, “The music the trio made for Sun Records and later for RCA, where they were joined by drummer DJ Fontana, deserves to be heard again and again. These recordings, among the finest examples of rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded on tape, were something new and electrifying.

There is also the question of the period itself. The beginnings of rock and roll have their roots in the profound social changes of the post-war period. A generation of young workers who had lived through the horrors of economic depression and war were determined not to return to the hardships of that time. With newfound confidence, energy and even a little money in their pockets, the young people seemed to have a richer life experience than their parents or grandparents had known. Rock and roll expressed the spirit and optimism of this younger generation, which was rapidly eroding traditional norms and would, within a few years, erupt into mass movements and struggles for social and democratic rights.

To its credit, Luhrmann’s film attempts to combat some of these issues. This isn’t a film that just fixates on its subject’s personal demons and doesn’t ignore them either. A number of the opening scenes, in particular, with Presley’s raucous performances interspersed with racist invectives against him from Southern Democrats, capture something of the true rebellious energy of early rock and roll. Butler gives a moving and sensitive performance as Presley (and contributes much of his own singing to the soundtrack).

Olivia DeJonge and Austin Butler in Elvis

The film fails in a number of key areas. In the first place, Luhrmann has simply bit off far more than he can chew. Elvis tries to cram a lot of material into its runtime, so many important events and episodes barely have time to make an impact. It feels like Luhrmann is rushing through a “greatest hits” list of well-known events in Presley’s life, without stopping long enough to bring out the larger social or psychological significance of an event. individual.

There’s also the matter of Luhrmann’s cinematic style, which can perhaps be described as the visual equivalent of having a pie filled with confetti and glitter repeatedly thrown in the face. Whereas Elvis is not as superficial as some of Luhrmann’s other efforts (red Millthe horrible Gatsby the magnificentetc.), the director puts too much effort into being visually impressive and not enough into making sure every scene is dramatically necessary and compelling.

The director’s garish visual style is at its worst during scenes set in Las Vegas. Luhrmann seems to be using the set as an excuse to fill the screen with glitter and sparkles, never stopping to realize that the ridiculous productions and costumes Presley was forced into at the end of his life decreases his work, rather than improving it. Besides, the presentation also diminishes Butler’s performance. The calm and discreet portrayal of the young actor often struggles to be heard, especially the director’s excesses, which are a constant distraction.

Still, the filmmakers must be given credit for one point in particular, that they generally did not buy into modern-day racist condemnations of Presley for “stealing” music from African-American artists. Such accusations, which are the favorite slander of those obsessed with identity politics and “cultural appropriation,” distort Presley’s story and the history of popular music in general.

The film makes it clear that Presley had a genuine love and admiration for the music of figures such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton and the legendary BB King, with whom Presley had a lifelong friendship. Presley’s music, in turn, was greatly admired by black and white listeners. He was not making cheap knockoffs aimed at profiting from the popularity of other artists, an accusation that could perhaps legitimately be leveled, for example, against Pat Boone and his lifeless renditions of Little Richard songs.

Presley’s spirited and passionate recordings of songs that had been performed by his greatest musical influences demonstrate not only respect for the source material, but also Presley’s skill as a musical performer. In Presley’s hands, a familiar song could become something new, with layers of emotional depth and soaring power that hadn’t been explored before. Songs like “Blue Suede Shoes” or “Hound Dog”, although apparently “covers”, were completely transformed by Presley’s artistry. Far from “stealing” these songs, he brought them something new and necessary.

It is, of course, a travesty that artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton did not receive the recognition or commercial success they deserved, and Jim Crow-era racist bigotry played a part. major in this regard. But the attempt to put this injustice at Presley’s feet is dishonest and reactionary. In fact, Presley was criticized by racial segregationists because his music reflected (to a degree that Presley himself might never have fully understood) a new current in American society, which undermined color barriers and prepared a new wave of social struggles.

Despite all of its other flaws, the film is a sympathetic portrayal of Presley in this regard.