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Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ simplifies star’s legacy: NPR


Austin Butler as Elvis.

Pictures from Warner Bros.


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Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ simplifies star’s legacy: NPR

Austin Butler as Elvis.

Pictures from Warner Bros.

The conundrum with every biopic about an extremely famous person – the kind of person who truly represents that now overused and diluted term “icon” – is to tease the human beneath all that iconography. Beyond nailing the ‘look’ or ‘sound’, however one interprets it, does this character who’s been referenced, imitated and memorized ad nauseum feel like a real one again? nobody ? Does the exercise result in a better understanding and/or appreciation of their work and what made them iconic in the first place?

Many biopics struggle to solve this conundrum. And few, if any, can totally avoid falling into hagiography, which is probably the most common trap of the genre. Elvis, director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann, the absurd and dizzying interpretation of the life of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), not only fails to make the so-called king of rock and roll a three-dimensional human being; it actively draws him further into the recesses of memedom, while making his legacy far less interesting than it actually is.

Tom Hanks, and a strange European accent rivaling the cast of Gucci House, stars as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ longtime manager who turned out to be little more than a peddler with a troubled past. “The Colonel”, as he is called, is both our narrator and an infamous villain who ruthlessly exploits Elvis, though he refuses to see himself as such. In the whirlwind of an opening sequence for the film, the aging and ailing Colonel insists it’s not true that he was responsible for the superstar’s untimely death at the age of 42: “I made Elvis Presley.” He might as well twirl a spindly handlebar mustache.

Of the, Elvis is primarily interested in returning to a boring loaded and powerful question: what, or who, really killed Presley?

To “answer” this, of course, we need to go back to the beginning and touch on as many key points of Presley’s story as possible – his early exposure to black blues and gospel while growing up in Mississippi and Tennessee; his stratospheric rise as a rock and roll sex symbol; the death of his beloved mother Gladys (Helen Thomson); his legendary 1968 television special, his first of several comebacks; drug addiction, etc. In typical Luhrmann fashion, Elvis runs through nearly all of these and other events at a breakneck pace, relying on rambunctious split-screen-laden edits and the Colonel’s signaling voiceover to do most of the heavy lifting in the storytelling department . If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, imagine all those elisions, quick cuts, and dramatic flourishes, but all wrapped up in nearly three hours.

This approach can result in loud, high-energy sequences fueled by dynamic recreations of Butler’s performances — the hips squirm easily, and according to Luhrmann, it’s mostly Butler himself singing those vocals. When he’s offstage and the pressures of reality take over, the character of Elvis gets lost in the aesthetic cacophony or gets bogged down in clumsy attempts to turn him into a tragic, simple hero at the mercy of a menacing manager. For one thing, his relationship and eventual marriage to Priscilla Presley is dashed for ignoring the fact that she was 14 years old — 10 years his junior — when they first met.

Elvis also tentatively flirts with his place at the intersection of politics, portraying him in a familiar light as a rebel whose gyrations and “black music” renditions infuriate white parents and lawmakers, while sure to note to how sad he was about the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Yet, curiously, Luhrmann couldn’t find a place – in a nearly three-hour film! Did I already mention this? — to pander to that infamous encounter with President Nixon in 1970, where Presley, then a seasoned statesman by pop music standards, railed against hippies and drug culture, which could have been an interesting dramatic contrast to explore.

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ simplifies star’s legacy: NPR

Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s new movie Elvis.

Pictures from Warner Bros.


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Pictures from Warner Bros.

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ simplifies star’s legacy: NPR

Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s new movie Elvis.

Pictures from Warner Bros.

More frustrating, however, is how Elvis deals with its subject’s relationship to black music and culture. Luhrmann and his co-writers know it’s a facet that can’t be ignored, but what’s clearly meant to serve as a tribute to Presley’s black predecessors and contemporaries is played on lip service instead. Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey), BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason) all appear here and there in small bits to draw lineage and demonstrate how Presley was adopted by black communities in its early years. But if a viewer walks into this movie knowing little or nothing about Presley, they’ll come away thinking it was that simple, because the movie consciously avoids the heavier legacy he had as “king.” white of a kind rooted in Black Tradition.

There is no mention of the widespread rumor that he once said “the only thing niggers can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes”, a rumor that persisted for decades and undoubtedly helped cement him as nothing more than a cultural appropriator in the eyes of many. Concrete evidence of this did not materialize, and he was shot by Presley himself in an interview with Black magazine. Jet, where he added that “rock and roll was here long before I arrived. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people.” But to excise any criticisms or apprehensions of black artists in the script ultimately do him a disservice and the inherent nuances in how his art has been received.

As tedious and superficial as this exercise is, it is not boring. Big Luhrmann fans and Presley fans will find plenty to hang on to here; it is a film overflowing with nostalgia and admiration for its subject, with a red Mill-like mixing classic songs from the catalog with new tweens from modern artists like Doja Cat and Diplo. (I would say it is more effective in red Mill and Luhrmann’s ambitious series on the birth of hip-hop, Loweringwhere the characters have more time to develop amid vibrant and showy production.)

Yet, in the end, a garish luster remains coated on the man, the myth and the legend, Elvis. The movie’s answer to what killed Presley, metaphorically speaking, won’t surprise anyone who’s ever watched a biopic about a pop star. The crazy excesses of Elvis just aren’t enough to cover up the idolatry of paint-by-numbers.

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