Elvis ★★★★

“As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions,” Chuck D said. “As a Black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’s icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. ... My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.”

In the news conference after Elvis’s 1969 opening in Las Vegas. He posed for a photo with his friend Fats Domino and told reporters of the singer’s influence, declaring him the real king of rock-and-roll.


There is talent, influence, swagger, and recording/audience injustice all wrapped up in Elvis. Comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody is mental. Not only is Austin Butler not lip-syncing but, more importantly, at least Baz Luhrmann's Elvis is about something. That something is capitalism. How a young boy could become so enraptured by Black rhythm and blues and revival gospel that the system could catapult him into superstardom because he's white — when he performs the same songs with the same verve — but then tear him down for making their sons and daughters wanna dance, or worse, fuuuuck. Then ask him to tone it down for Christian America. All this after signing a terrible contract with a carnival promoter. Elvis would become the biggest star in the world but gets stuck in a forever pattern of work to churn out shows as a golden ticket for a man who doesn't do a damn thing other than gamble away his profits and make deals with the casino to get those debts forgiven.

Yes, the racial politics of inspiration crossing into appropriation are only handled on a surface level and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) mostly serves as a cheerleader. Luhrmann shows a young Elvis spying on performers, welcomed in to an all Black club, and gives the audience space to make their own judgements on Elvis. However Luhrmann makes sure that you know the system that allowed him to thrive was definitely racist. The moment that Tom Hanks' carnie promoter realizes that the singer he's hearing on the radio is white, which will be plucked out of context and memed to death even though Baz requires context for his absurdity. This is played to the hilt to realize the stupidity of the capitalist system that will favor a musical sound once a white man does it and the profits will flow. I can understand if it isn't enough for many people how his influences are lifted and observed. But Baz at least points to it often. It's a movie meant to entertain but is aware that his mythology has gotten murkier over the years. 

I mention the "he's white" moment because I do think you're meant to roll your eyes at "Good Ole Days" America. And meant to roll hard. Nothing exemplifies that more than the moment where I was completely in stitches — Elvis' first Hayride performance where every hip thrust and gyration was met with immediate accidental orgasms like sitting atop a horse or washing machine on the spin cycle. Previous to his performance a good ole boy with a short hairdo calls Elvis a “fairy” with a taunting shout and a good ole boy grin. When Elvis starts singing the date next to this grinning bully immediately melts into a a previously untapped body sensation of unknown pleasure. Again, we're meant to laugh at this and feel each hip thrust as launching both a sexual revolution and just breaking free of shackles. So much of Elvis had me giggling with the absurd swings.

Each decade gets a showstopping performance from the 50s Louisiana Hayride to the 60s Christmas Special to his first Las Vegas performance in the 70s. The pieces work better than the whole, which crams so much in, but the pieces are entertaining as hell! Your previous thoughts on Baz movies will definitely inform your mileage with this. It’s 160 minutes!

Since its structured like a tragedy from an asshole narrator, his manipulative leech of a manager, Elvis remains mostly a mythical figure throughout. You don't get close to him. His hips and wiggles keep everyone at a little distance. But the performances are rousing and arousing and Butler is beyond committed. While it doesn't plumb the depths of the American psyche or of Elvis himself, Luhrmann mostly avoids biopic tropes. There is the scene of a pill being given as a gateway drug and a brief montage of girls coming to his hotel room. And Olivia de Jonge is saddled with the standard wife scenes — taking the kid away, pleading to get help — without much else to do. However, though it takes a while to get used to Hanks makeup and vocal cadence (he gets a dismal introduction that falls in the usual Baz overdrive beginning that eventually levels out) there is a solid throughline of follow-the-money questioning; who owns what from song to labor and who is granted a stage and how does that stage get reset by the backward crowd. And, ultimately, how loyalty, something that never seems to work in capitalism — can be a trap when its loyalty to a leech system.

An appealing layer to the story is how the audience, so hungry to possibly feel the love of Elvis and Elvis to feel the love of them, are implicated in his Vegas downfall as well. Dance, for me, dance!! capitalism. Foreshadowed by a sexy pose in with a poster for the carnival Geek right beyond a beautiful, hopeful, untouched young Elvis.

Brian liked these reviews