New ‘Elvis’ movie pays homage to a man many consider a cultural thief
When Elvis Presley died in 1977, Lester Bangs argued that his death marked the end of consensus in American culture.
“We will continue to fragment,” predicted the critic, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2000 film almost known. “With our nurtured indifference to one another, there will be an even more contemptuous indifference to one another’s objects of reverence.”
In other words: you will see the world your way, and I will see it mine. Don’t even try to convince me otherwise.
“We will never again agree on anything like we agreed on Elvis,” Bangs, who died in 1982, wrote in the Village Voice. “Then I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse.” I’ll say goodbye to you.
Forty-five years later, America is a divided place, and not least about the revolving singer from Tupelo, Mississippi, who is the subject of ElvisBaz Luhrmann’s new fever dream of a movie starring Austin Butler as the man who would be King and Tom Hanks as his brilliant carny barker manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Elviswhich also features Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as BB King, Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton and Alton Mason as Little Richard, arrives in theaters Friday with a big task at hand.
It aims to appeal to moviegoers by reimagining a rags-to-riches story that is calcified into caricature.
It’s Elvis as a down-to-earth white Southern boy in the grip of rhythm and blues, country and gospel music that is the answer to the prayers of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records.
Elvis transforms into a hip-swiveling sensation that rocks 1950s America before spending the 1960s making insane Hollywood movies and reassembling a bodysuit-wrapped carcass, lost in Las Vegas purgatory.
The film portrays its main character as the hero of an American tragedy. He is trapped by the conniving Colonel, whose real name was Andreas van Kuijk and who was born in the Netherlands – not West Virginia as he claimed. Hanks enjoys being the wrong guy for once, playing Parker with a prosthetic nose, a bloated belly, and a Dutch accent.
Butler as Elvis is as good as one would hope for in an impossible role. He has otherworldly good looks in the opening scenes as the charismatic character Bruce Springsteen called “a human Adonis,” and he’s a big chunk of scorching love during the TV performance known as The comeback special from 68.
It also gains gravitas in the solitary scenes at the top of the film, which feel as long as its 2 hours 39 minutes as it winds its way to its sad conclusion. And he acquits himself adequately vocally, singing himself in the opening scenes and digitally mixing his vocals with real-life mature Elvis.
But any hope of making Elvis Presley truly relevant in 2022 would mean doing much more than telling a story that’s already been seen with a clever cast and the brand dazzle that has marked Lurhmann’s previous confections like red Mill.
It would mean confronting race and allegations that Presley is the number one offender when it comes to the cultural crime of reaping the rewards of white privilege to become rich and famous while worthy black artists have never received credit or monetary compensation.
It is doubtful that the consensus of which Lester Bangs spoke in Presley’s obituary ever existed. Did we really agree on Presley in 1977? But Bangs was prescient seeing how cultural consumers would construct their tribal identities, coming together with like-minded true believers, whether to follow Fox News or MSNBC, or stan pop stars like Beyoncé or Morgan Wallen.
And one of the most controversial figures, of course, is Elvis himself. Presley remains the best-selling solo artist of all time. With 700,000 annual visitors, Graceland is the second largest private residence tourist attraction in the United States, second only to the White House.
And speaking of this residence (where Elvis surprised Richard Nixon during a visit in 1970) – Donald Trump, posthumously awarded Presley the Medal of Freedom there in 2018.
But while Elvis still has millions of fans, he has been discredited by pop culture public opinion. For that, thanks to 1989’s brilliant single “Fight the Power,” in which Public Enemy’s Chuck D, along with Flavor Flav, struck a blow at mainstream white culture by rapping while wearing a Phillies cap: “Elvis was a hero for the most part, but he never meant s— to me / Straight racist, that asshole was plain and simple, mother f— him and John Wayne.
In Eugene Jarecki’s 2017 documentary The king, Chuck D absolves Presley of the sin of appropriation. “Culture is culture,” he says. “Culture is made to be shared. But he objects to Elvis being nicknamed “The King,” a crown that could rightly have rested on the heads of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Presley’s relationship with black music was anything but simple and clear. He revered bluesmen such as BB King, and as a child he would sneak into black churches to listen to gospel music.
“That’s Alright (Mama),” the song that set her career on fire, was a cover by bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, performed on Elvis by Gary Clark Jr. But it was an exciting reinterpretation, not a carbon copy. And the flip side of the song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” evokes rock and roll from a Bill Monroe bluegrass tune. He told Phillips’ assistant Marion Keisker when he first appeared at The Sun: “I sing all kinds.”
James Brown said Presley “taught America to come down”. Little Richard made a point of calling himself the “architect” and “inventor” of rock and roll, but also called Elvis “a blessing”. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door.”
This idea that Presley did the world a favor is found in The searcher, the 2018 HBO documentary, in which Bruce Springsteen says, “Elvis’ music spoke of black culture and said, ‘It’s something that’s filled with the force of life. … If you want to be American, that’s something you have to be careful about. ”
This notion of Elvis as a liberator — or even accidental revolutionary — runs through one of my favorite songs about Elvis (there are many): “Baby Boom Che,” by Native American poet and activist John Trudell. “It showed [us] there’s something good about feeling good, … being sensual is really good,” spoke-sang Trudell. “He was American baby boomer Che.”
Little good has done this for the black artists Presley drew inspiration from, CNN commentator Van Jones contradicts in The king. “My dad was born in Memphis in 1944, and there’s probably no one he hated more than Elvis Presley,” he says. “It is sometimes very difficult to express the frustration that black people feel at having given so much to the culture, and this value, which really helps define America, for the benefit of others.”
Elvis functions primarily as splashy entertainment but cautiously tackles topics of racial privilege. Colonel Parker’s eyes light up with dollar signs when he realizes the voice he hears belongs to a white man. When Presley is threatened by censors who fear America’s youth are being corrupted, he seeks to reconnect with his authentic self by traveling to Beale Street in Memphis to hang out with his friend King.
After watching dazzling performances by Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Elvis tells King that the Colonel has warned him that if he doesn’t moderate his act, he will end up in jail.
The bluesman pokes fun at his friend’s naivety, explaining that the risks Elvis takes hardly compare to the dangers King regularly faces as a black man living in the segregated South. King and the King were perhaps great friends, brothers in spirit whose lives in the House of Blues were illuminated by the same music. But in reality, they lived in different worlds.