A New Movie Revisits Elvis Presley’s Complicated Legacy

ItThere is not one Elvis Presley in 2022. The One True Elvis is actually many Elvises, a deity with an infinite number of faces, refracted into an ever shifting pattern of pleasure and frustration, of contradictions and delights. For every Elvis myth, there’s a counter truth, and for every truth, a counter myth. It will never be settled or agreed on. Which means that whether you love or loathe the movies of Baz Luhrmann, a kind of Bedazzler kit in filmmaker form, it’s easy to understand why he’d be attracted to the legend of Elvis Presley. The movie he’s made, Elvis, it is both frustrating and rewarding, an artificial surface of sequins that exposes the harsh truths about this American pauper king who speaks in a clothed-of-gold tone. Elvis continues to be a mystery in a world that wants to close all mysteries.

There was a beginning to Elvis, the survivor of a set of twins born to Gladys Presley on Jan. 8, 1935. There is no end to his story, even 45 years later. Elvis was born poor in Memphis but ended up becoming a millionaire. While he makes people mad, he also makes others happy. His life and career are woven into America’s ideas of race and class, but he also cuts across the grain of that fabric in jagged, unsettling strokes. Even if Elvis is forever, when Luhrmann first announced he was making an Elvis movie, back in 2014, the question might have been “Why now?” But in 2022—especially now that we’ve seen how politically, racially, and culturally fractured our nation could become—the many faces of Elvis form a sun mosaic that raises more questions than it answers. For better or worse, to gaze directly at its light is to view ourselves.

Elvis was influenced by Black artists or stole from them directly? Was he a sexual abuser, first grooming an underage Priscilla Beaulieu—she was just 14 when the two met, in 1959—and then, after their marriage, subjecting her to any number of weird sexual proclivities? Is Elvis still alive? He was still a popular figure, with his loyal fans at the time, but he was drug-ridden, overweight, and sad. For a time, he was more punch line than legend, and genteel Southerners, in particular, often thought of as him as a gold-plated hick, gauche and offensive in his very being. In the 1990s, when I was living in Boston, a co-worker of mine who’d grown up in Tennessee was appalled when she learned of my love for him. “He’s the reason,” she told me, “people from the North think Southerners eat dirt.”

Continue reading: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Is an Exhilarating, Maddening Spectacle—But One Made With Love

You would think that by now older people would be tired of talking about Elvis, and that younger people don’t care about him at all, but the truth isn’t so easy to parse. Some have used Twitter and TikTok to make angry, but not necessarily secure, cases against Elvis for the way he treated Priscilla. She was his wife in 1967. They called her a victim, even though she does not claim that title. She has admitted her union with Elvis was complicated—how could it not be? Yet even today, there’s a need to make Elvis manageable, less dangerous to our sense of order. He feeds into our modern need, fueled in part by reckonings that were a long time coming, to reduce people to something we can control—even if controlling the past is impossible.

Elvis Roberts (26 years old) is a TikTok impersonator who has captivated over 860,000 followers. His swoony bedroom eyes, half-sneer, and charming look are reminiscent of an Australian Elvis. If older Elvis impersonators tend to favor the jumpsuit-era Elvis as they age—the costume is forgiving of expanding girth—the dream of the young Elvis, as embodied by people like Roberts, coexists with the tragic, beautiful wreck he became. Marilyn Monroe was his cultural twin in this respect. She is a celebrity whose vulnerability, beauty and intelligent made her so attractive in her life. This movie will tell her story. Blonde,An attempt to explore HerComplex legacy. Elvis’ beauty in youth matched Marilyn’s; think of him in radiant profile, as timeless as an ancient coin. Because we can hear in his music confidence and longing that speaks to our own contradictions, it is why his music has endured.

Twenty22 will see the sun mosaic formed by many of Elvis’ faces. It raises more questions that it answers.

Mario Tama—Getty Images

Strangely or not, Elvis is the perfect foil to them. He can surf a lot of waves at once, which may be a coincidence. And every seemingly easy conclusion made about Elvis—the claim, for instance, that he stole from Black artists—has a counterweight that clouds facile certainty. One unequivocal truth is that although he drew from all musical sources—including country and pop—he both loved and was deeply influenced by Black musicians. It’s also true that he made a great deal more money off Black, or Black-influenced, music than most Black artists of his time. His 1956 megahit “Hound Dog” certainly netted a lot more dough for him than it did for Big Mama Thornton, who earned just $500 off her own hit 1952 version. Ironically, the song was actually written for her by white songwriting team Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller.

But Elvis didn’t steal the song from Thornton. Cover versions are part of pop music’s vernacular, and it’s the songwriters who earn the big royalties anyway. (Reportedly, Leiber and Stoller hated Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” much preferring the rolling sensuality of Thornton’s.) And even if being white and male gave Elvis certain advantages over Thornton, especially in the world of music contracts, his white-man status wasn’t as huge an advantage as you might think. Simply because he broke rules about how white men should look and sound and move, plenty of white Americans, especially parents, thought of him as a degenerate—a not-so-veiled indication of America’s deep racist roots. Black music wasn’t a thing any white person was supposed to aspire to. Elvis was a rare exception in his day, and he achieved unimaginable popularity. Like all great musicians, Elvis built upon what was already there, using songs and sounds that he liked and appreciated. He longed for fame but music was his first love. He’s part of the story of racial injustice in this country, but the whole of it is too large and unwieldy to be laid at his feet.

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Given the complexity of Elvis’ legacy, you’d think a dazzlemeister like Luhrmann would be the worst filmmaker to take it on. Luhrmann’s movies—even the great ones, like his 1996 Shakespeare-via-Tiger BeatRomance Romeo and Juliet Or The Great Gatsby from 2013, a fringed shimmy of decadence and loneliness—are loathed by many for what they see as the director’s garishness, his adoration of spectacle, his penchant for headache-inducing mincemeat-and-glitter editing. Und ElvisIn some ways it is a mess like Elvis was.

Yet the movie’s frenetic, prismatic quality may be the best way to deal with the messy whole of Elvis. At times Elvis is barely a movie—the first hour or so is shredded and frenzied, as if Luhrmann were time-traveling through a holographic rendering of Elvis’ life, dipping and darting through the significant events with little time to touch down. And Luhrmann’s use of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ diabolically crooked manager, as a framing device—he’s played, with a weird accent, by Tom Hanks—sometimes derails the film. It’s as though building a case for Elvis’ victimhood were the only means of earning our sympathy for this prodigiously gifted, haunted man.

Austin Butler plays Elvis in Baz Lehmann’s film

Warner Bros.

However, the exuberance Elvis, refracted in the doppelgänger energy of its star, Austin Butler, elevates it to a realm above taste, where only sensation matters. Butler conjures the guilelessness of Elvis’ face, his soft yet chiseled cheekbones, the look in his eyes that says, “I’m up for anything—are you?” He and Luhrmann hop through the major events of Elvis’ life, sometimes going for long stretches without taking a breath. Elvis is exhausting; it’s also exhilarating, a crazy blur you can’t look away from.

It is a 100% factual biopic. ElvisIt is likely to be a disaster. But as a biography of an idea, it’s as much a triumph as you could hope for, a work of controlled and sustained mad love for an artist whose story is never-ending. The cultural critic Greil Marcus once said of Elvis, “His voice gets to the heart of everything you want out of life.” A balls-out hip-shaker in a pink suit that appears to be made of liquid, an unmanageable fantasy in tight leather pants, a crooner pouring his silken soul into us, like an offering, from a Vegas stage: there’s an Elvis for every one of us, and for every
part of us—a man who came from less than nowhere and spoke of all the things he wanted to be. He may have fallen short but we can too.

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