X Close

How we forgot Elvis It's easy to dismiss his transformative musical force

Luhrmann pays loving attention to Elvis’s explosive sexuality. GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Luhrmann pays loving attention to Elvis’s explosive sexuality. GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images


July 4, 2022   7 mins

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.


Dorian Lynskey is an author, journalist and UnHerd columnist.

Dorianlynskey

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

21 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rod Robertson
Rod Robertson
2 years ago

Totally disagree with this review. It was a great film and succeeded in its aim: to reclaim Elvis from the self-parody he had become. To boot, it had an Oedipal mom, ineffectual dad, tyrant dad. Shakespeareanly tragic. See it for the ending, if for nothing else.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

We all remember fat Elvis at the end, and the hokey movies of the sixties. I think to begin to understand Elvis’s appeal you have to go all the way back. No doubt he brought great sexuality to his performances but easily overlooked is the voice. Here’s a 1950s recording of “That’s Alright Mama”. The guy had a great voice.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmopYuF4BzY

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Elvis did have a fantastic voice, one that could go convincingly from being a hunk of burning love to someone crying in the chapel. He may have had blue suede shoes but he didn’t have a wooden heart.

I clearly remember hearing of his death. I was pushing a trolley down the endless isle of a sparkling, sterile new supermarket when they broke into the muzak with the news announcement. We all stopped, stood – they started playing Are you Lonesome Tonight, and I think we all wanted to cry.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

“As for his influence on today’s major artists, only Jack White and, arguably, Eminem have a clear debt to Elvis”

What about Bruno Mars?

jane baker
jane baker
2 years ago

Crying in the Chapel is my favourite Elvis song of all. Two years ago I bought an Elvis Sings Gospel CD as a kind of “post modern joke” thinking it would be all cheesy and yukky. What a laugh! But it’s beautiful. He sings a load of Faith Songs,many very old,a few more contemporary,not only very well but with complete and obvious sincerity. I play it a lot. OK so his faith didn’t make him a Perfect Person but it was real for sure and a lot of us find the gap between how we should be and how we are very wide.

jane baker
jane baker
2 years ago

I was a little kid when Elvis was The King. It was my big sister who had “Elvis” and “Cliff” scratched into her school pencil case lid. They got equal top billing. Elvis had SO MUCH TALENT but it all got ignored and dissipated by such BAD management. Now we wonder why didn’t Elvis just stand up to his “manager” and demand his passport. But Elvis grew up in a world we’ve forgotten and only some older than me even glimpsed. A world where good manners and respect were drilled into you. Everyone of note who met Elvis in the 1960s,like say Joyce Grenfell,remarked how polite he was,in that charming American way. The thing is those rock and roll rebels weren’t really so outrageous as the media,at it back then too,hyped them up to be. Now it’s good that artists are more shrewd and have access to lawyers ( the words criminal and lawyer fit together so well).
Elvis had great acting ability and his career could have been developed that way but sadly he was kept making dross for the rest of his life,and he knew it,which is even sadder. Just my take on the tragedy of Elvis. Its like a Greek tragedy really. They say you should never get what you wish for.

keith venturoni
keith venturoni
2 years ago

I have always thought the lack of current/new fans of Elvis is due to his rather spotty albums. If your parents were Beatles fans and you get curious about the Beatles and randomly grab a Beatles album to check out, it is a good record. If you do the same with Elvis and grab one of his lame soundtrack albums, or one of his patchwork latter albums, the potential young fan is going to wonder what mom and dad see in this guy. For whatever reason Elvis threw away what could have been some of his most creative years. The copyright requirements if he recorded one of your songs kept top songwriters away. Touring with overblown bands, do you really need two groups of background singers?, playing mostly lame covers and rushing through your greatest hits, makes it seem as if he almost learned nothing from the 68 comeback. His legacy is bottom heavy in forgettable releases, and as a result new fans are tough to foster.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

Several solid points in your observations. His early music was much more compelling and brought a new fresh approach to the blend of R&B and country. Later material was much less inspiring.

Matthew Waterhouse
Matthew Waterhouse
2 years ago

Most of the uninitiated will surely check out one of Elvis’s compilation albums of hits, of which there are a several to choose from, rather than a studio release. The remix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ was a massive hit, as was the hits collection of that time, along with a string of singles re-releases. So whilst it is natural for the popularity of artists to wane as decades go by, Elvis can certainly be repackaged and remain commercially viable for new generations.

Graham Lee
Graham Lee
1 year ago

True, but he released plenty of terrific albums: Elvis Presley, Elvis (1956), For LP Fans Only, A Date With Elvis, the 2 Xmas and 3 gospel albums, the 4 golden record volumes, Elvis Is Back!, From Elvis in Memphis, the 68 comeback special soundtrack, From Memphis to Vegas…, Elvis in Person…, Elvis Country, On Stage, That’s The Way it Is, Today, Promised Land… Even some of the movie soundtracks, like GI Blues, are pretty good. More great records than the Beatles (let’s face it, their later albums are patchy too, like the White Album and Abbey Road), or other rock acts who focused more on cohesive album releases, often with pretentious concepts. But then if you release 60-odd albums in your career then there are obviously going to be some which are more throwaway or patchy, especially when he was going through the motions or in the doldrums. For me it seems an extraordinary legacy, especially when he wasn’t even primarily an ‘albums’ artist, and current pop acts might release one album as a supposedly defining statement every four or five years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Graham Lee
Paul Rogerson
Paul Rogerson
2 years ago

He’s been dead 45 years and many of the early fans are also now dead. I suspect it’s as simple as that. Let’s see if Elton John is outperforming him on Spotify in another 45.

Tyler 0
Tyler 0
2 years ago

I was going to say Elvis has never been a gay icon is just not Queer enough for the present epoch. Then I thought it prudent to to Google my hypothesis first, and immediately found..
“Elberace (Gay Elvis): A Hunk of Mincing Love  – James Haslam’s queer cabaret subverts and disrupts the hetero- and cis- dominated world of Elvis Tribute Acts (ETAs).” (https://www.gayelvis.com/)
Not a great start to my week. The King would be rolling (and rocking) in his grave..

David Bouqdib
David Bouqdib
2 years ago

I’ll tell you how we “forgot” Elvis… It’s just post-Elvis generations 😀 My mum hasn’t forgotten Elvis (she was born in the 50s) I was born in ’84 so Elvis has always been very much on the periphery of my lived experience and I am very much not interested. I imagine anyone born in the 2000s would potentially know of him but for obvious reasons just wouldn’t care unless very invested in music history…

tom j
tom j
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bouqdib

Yes, I was born in the 70s, I never understood why Elvis was famous, he just seemed like a relic. He still does.

Edwina Addington
Edwina Addington
2 years ago

Disagree with all your points and think that the movie showed how talented, how revolutionary, how talented,in fact, exceptional, Elvis was and how much his upbringing influenced both his character and music.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Was Elvis the ultimate Elvis impersonator? His 1968 comeback refers, I think, to an individual song he sang that was a tribute, not a direct tribute though, to Martin Luther King: a song that he sang live on national television that was watched by tens of millions of people; an original, quite wonderful and moving song that was, I believe, written for him by a black artist; a song that may have only come around because Elvis had ventured to suggest how he might respond to the events he would have watched on television and in particular the assassination of MLK; a song that Elvis knew he could especially sing as some sort of healing moment. He surely struck timely a nerve: some kind of reset button that only a mere thing like a song in its own small way could. The evidence for that? I don’t know. I watched a documentary on Elvis, late at night, just last week and so much of what I watched is partially hazy. I only caught it from a third of the way in, from that 1968 event. But the evidence for that song he sang live on TV (the title of which I don’t recall; did I ever recall it? I made tea, swatted a fly, looked at my stupid phone while the doc was on: does Elvis not deserve anyone’s full attention today?), but the evidence for that song he sang striking some kind of chord in Americans nationwide was the recognition immediately after that he had made a riveting and unexpected comeback. Perhaps where there was instant love for him, there was also instant dislike for him, also. Did Elvis, from the South, ever detect resentment against him? At the end of the Sixties? Did he take a little risk by singing that song on television as he did in 1968? Did he ever wonder if some Americans might have, having watched him sing it, vehemently shouted at their TV sets: “Who does he think he is?” Was Elvis too sensitive a soul? As another commenter on this thread alludes to, the media of Elvis’s time may well have been very adept at glossing over the good manners, the charming politeness and respect that a lot of young men like Elvis would have been brought up with. If Elvis was more sensitive than most, then that make-up he carried with him through to 1968. Perhaps Elvis had the biggest trouble of all Elvis impersonators when he had to, when it later mattered, strive to impersonate himself: his true charismatic, talented, magnetic self. How the world today could do with such a great artist and entertainer today! Did Elvis’s comeback period only last from 1968 to 1970? In truth? Before the Las Vegas merry-go-round took its toll? I’ll watch the new movie with interest now. I hope it does not rush past the 1950s just to get to the cooler 60s and 70s. The 1950s is viewed today as a strait-laced decade. Which is why Elvis was so important if anything. But the man was very talented, musically, yes.
I enjoyed reading the above article.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

I can’t cop Baz World. Dorian is right to call them music film clips, but worse, they are boring. I’ll probably watch Elvis, but my expectations will be low.

Peter Lucey
Peter Lucey
2 years ago

“As I left the cinema, exhausted…”
Thats what put me off – 2 hours and 40 minutes (plus adverts and trailers) – too much!
“This is Spinal Tap” was a glorious 88 minutes.
Memo to modern directors: “Cut it down!”

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Lucey
Reide Kaiser
Reide Kaiser
2 years ago

A bit more context about Elvis and the passage of generations and their idols into history is appropriate. From Gary Giddins’ book Bing Crosby: A Pocket Full of Dreams: “Four of the last century’s most treasured singers died in quick succession in the late summer and fall of 1977: Elvis Presley on August 16, Ethel Waters on September 1, Maria Callas on September 16, and Bing Crosby on October 14. All were American-born and all were celebrated beyond the idioms with which they are primarily associated. Of them, Bing’s stature seemed especially secure: his obituaries triggered so many records sales that MCA (Decca) could not handle the orders and farmed them out to other plants, requiring more than a million discs per day. Yet on the twentieth anniversary of their deaths, only Elvis’s memory was widely acknowledged in mass media.”
The fan base dies, and those in control of the media etc promote what they grew up with and that has sales potential. Elvis remains part of the rock mythology/hagiography, and so is subject of a major motion picture. Of the others, sadly barely a trace is to be found.
As for Baz, I suffered through his ugly mess of a Gatsby and consequently will give his Elvis a pass.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

In Tennessee we still have Elvis license plates. They’re a specialty plate. It’s like an extra 50 bucks to get one. They’re pretty rare. Dolly plates outsell Elvis 50 to 1.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago

Not seen the film and always felt Elvis was overrated having been born when Elvis was in the army. .If had been born in a different era would anyone see him as much better than Shakin Stevens.At least Billy Idol could claim to write his own songs and have ideas for great videos
Elvis must have influenced Jim Morrison.And one wonders if he would have gone into rock without Elvis’s influence as Morrison always wanted to be really a poet and film director.
I actually have read books by the 2 rock critics mentioned in the article Grail Marcus and the late Lester Bangs – both great writers despite what they rate in music often misses me.Bangs might have been the best prose writer of his generation whilst Marcus is full of interesting insights.