The most telling line in Baz Luhrmann’s new movie Elvis comes at the very end, in the form of a title card: “His influence on music and culture lives on.” As I left the cinema, exhausted and annoyed, I wondered whether that was true, and whether it would need to be said if it were obvious.
Elvis Presley has not exactly vanished from popular culture but his position is greatly diminished. When the private equity fund Authentic Brands Group acquired a majority share in Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2013, estate income, memorabilia sales, visits to Graceland and bookings for Elvis impersonators were all in decline, while two Elvis-based stage shows had flopped. “The reason brands die as they get older is because the older generation goes away,” one brand expert told Rolling Stone. “If you don’t push those brands to the younger generation at all times, eventually you age yourself out. And that’s what was going on with Elvis.”
Elvis has 14.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify: fewer than Elton John, David Bowie and the Beatles, more than Prince and Bob Dylan, about the same as Bruce Springsteen. But Queen’s Elvis pastiche Crazy Little Thing Called Love is more popular than all but one of Elvis’s own songs, and that one song, Can’t Help Falling in Love, is only as big as it is because of an appearance in Crazy Rich Asians. As for his influence on today’s major artists, only Jack White and, arguably, Eminem have a clear debt to Elvis, whereas there are legions of heirs to Bowie, Dylan, Michael Jackson or Stevie Nicks. He’s not just old; he’s old in the wrong way.
This explains why Elvis was made with the energetic cooperation of Elvis Presley Enterprises and the endorsement of the singer’s surviving family members. The idea must have been that the director who blitzed Shakespeare and F Scott Fitzgerald into very long music videos would turn on Generation Z to the glory of the King. Luhrmann has made an $85 million, 159-minute advertisement for Elvis Presley, yet still manages to sell him short where it matters most.
The critics who wrote about Elvis after his death in 1977, at the age of 42, would be astonished that his reputation would ever require such a booster injection. To them he was synonymous with not just rock’n’roll but American culture. Remarking on the atomisation of rock fandom, Lester Bangs wrote in his obituary: “I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” Greil Marcus went further in his 1991 book Dead Elvis, comparing the cultural impact of Elvis’s death to the passing of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Elvis did not simply change musical history, though of course he did that. He changed history as such, and in doing so became history.” Public Enemy’s Chuck D delivered a colossal backhanded compliment in 1989’s Fight the Power when he rapped “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me”. Chuck needed to attack a symbol of monolithic white American culture and that could only be Elvis. To dismiss him so heretically was to acknowledge his stature.
Marcus was right to say that Elvis became history but that’s not the same thing as retaining relevance for new generations. The rock’n’roll of the Fifties, which has long been sidelined even on US classic-rock radio, feels ancient, like a black-and-white movie. Even from that era, none of Elvis’s songs have the undeniable visceral jolt of Tutti Frutti or Great Balls of Fire. You have to imagine your way back to a more sedate time to apprehend the youthquake mayhem caused by Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock. The fact that Elvis didn’t write his own songs (not unusual at the time) increases this sense of temporal otherness, placing him closer to Frank Sinatra than the Beatles. Or perhaps Marilyn Monroe: an icon who your grandparents wanted to sleep with. He doesn’t have that one classic album that sells to each new generation like Rumours or Blue do. And the idea that he was just a pretty white boy who appropriated rock’n’roll from far more talented black artists, though grossly simplistic, has become received wisdom. For all these reasons, he is seen as more of a historical event than an enduring inspiration.
In Dead Elvis, Marcus wrestles with the stereotype of Elvis that had taken hold even before his death: the idiot savant whose primary talent was erotic and who was played like a marionette by his sinister manager Colonel Tom Parker; the accidental revolutionary who became a tourist attraction. In this version of the story Elvis gets credit for the initial energy flash which lasted from That’s All Right in 1954 to his induction into the army four years later, and for his unexpectedly triumphant 1968 comeback, but gets scolded for squandering his talent on schlock, his fortune on trash, and his health on junk food and pills. This tale has a tragic, mythic quality which makes him a microcosm of America: from young, scrappy and hungry to bloated, decadent and grotesque. What it doesn’t do is explain what that talent was in the first place.
Yet this is exactly the story Luhrmann has chosen to tell. He seems to have taken the 2007 parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story as a how-to manual, revelling in every cradle-to-grave biopic cliché you can think of, and dialogue that could have been written by low-rent AI: “The world needs to hear you sing, Elvis!” Poor old Elvis can’t turn on the television without seeing a report of some epochal assassination. In one frankly astonishing scene, the Manson clan’s killing of Sharon Tate happens just 24 hours before the catastrophe at Altamont rather than, as boring reality would have it, four months earlier. What any of this has to do with Elvis, a man so disconnected from the upheavals of the Sixties that he asked President Nixon to make him a federal narcotics agent, I have no idea.
So far, so silly but Luhrmann makes the fundamentally terrible decision to have the story narrated by Tom Hanks as Parker, a walking distraction with absurd fat-man prosthetics and an accent that is supposed to be Dutch but sounds more like a Nazi officer in a goofy war movie. Thus we understand what Parker saw in Elvis (dollar signs) but not what Elvis saw in himself. The artist, well-played by the terrifically attractive Austin Butler, comes across as a shallow hillbilly angel torn to pieces by a corrupt world when all he wants to do is sing. Luhrmann pays loving attention to Elvis’s outrageous, explosive sexuality (“Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimetre, tens of thousands of people went berserk,” observed Lester Bangs), but to the extent that he becomes a visual phenomenon rather than a musical one. We never understand why millions of girls who weren’t personally throwing their knickers at him thrilled to his records in their bedrooms — and millions of boys, too. Luhrmann being Luhrmann, he pumps up Elvis’s music with anachronistic new interpretations by Doja Cat and Eminem, as if unable to trust in the power of the real thing.
To really convey the tragedy of Elvis’s final years, trapped and sedated in Las Vegas like a bear in a gilded cage, you’d need a director who was at least sceptical of excess if not nauseated by it. Luhrmann, the man whose sole interest in The Great Gatsby was the parties, is not that director. The movie only really comes alive in Vegas, when everything is too loud, too bright, too fast, too much. By contrast, the earlier scenes of Elvis hanging out in blues clubs on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee have all the rootsy authenticity of an Eighties beer commercial. History says that Elvis was not at his finest in Vegas; the camera says more, more, more.
Elvis’s talent as a singer and arranger is easily underrated. The first time the New York Times wrote about him, in June 1956, it sneered: “Mr Presley has no discernible singing ability. His speciality is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathtub. For the ear he is an unutterable bore.” After Elvis’s death, the justifiably envious rock’n’roll pioneer Chuck Berry summed up his legacy with a patronising shrug: “boop, boop, boop; shake your leg; fabulous teen music; the Fifties; his movies.” Forty-five years later, it is even harder to assess the nature of Elvis’s brilliance.
The popular notion that Elvis was effectively performing musical blackface, and that any pouting, hip-thrusting white boy could have played that role in a racist industry, completely misses his X-factor. It’s true that black, queer Little Richard couldn’t go as far as Elvis did, but then nor could straight, white Carl Perkins. Only Elvis had the voice, charisma and taste to synthesise blues, country, gospel and pop in a way that made him, at the time, a unifying figure rather than an exploitative one. Certainly nobody close to him doubted his genuine affection for black music and musicians. “It was like two feuding clans who had been brought together by marriage,” said Marion Keisker of Sun Records, which released Elvis’s first five singles. Even Chuck D, modifying his claim in Fight the Power that Elvis was “straight-up racist”, admitted that he considered the music industry bigoted rather than Elvis himself.
Elvis had a good (though far from infallible) ear for material. He was exacting in the studio, demanding around 30 takes of Hound Dog even when everybody else in the room thought they’d nailed it. He never just turned up and sang. Luhrmann does grant him one scene of real creativity, in which he whips his vast band through a dramatic new arrangement of That’s All Right for the first show of his Las Vegas residency, dashing madly from player to player. He knew what people wanted to hear and he loved giving it to them. His ambition wasn’t imposed on him by Parker; it was a burning flame.
Luhrmann traffics in myths and fairy tales: nobody went to Moulin Rouge! expecting an accurate portrayal of turn-of-the-century Montmartre. Elvis, which has underperformed but still topped the US box office, has found an audience with its hectic, melodramatic megamix of the singer’s life. But many of those moviegoers will be learning about Elvis in detail for the first time and will leave with the impression of a sweet, somewhat dim, easily manipulated sexual dynamo — a “virtuoso of hootchy-kootchy”, as the New York Times sniffed in 1956 — rather than a transformative musical force.
“Nobody’s going to remember me,” Elvis frets to his wife Priscilla towards the end of the movie. “I never made anything lasting.” Presumably we are meant to think that he is completely wrong because his legend will live forever but Luhrmann never illuminates, nor seems to care about illuminating, the talent upon which that legend was built. The thick sediment of mythology and kitsch that Greil Marcus believed got in the way of appreciating Elvis is exactly what Luhrmann is interested in. Marcus quoted, and challenged, a crushing line from the critic James Wolcott: “As a musical artist [Elvis] doesn’t exist — he doesn’t begin to exist.” It’s unfortunate that the man entrusted with telling his story to a new generation would seem to agree.