Scene from Elvis Scene from Elvis

Terina Hine reviews Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of the life, musical influences and contradictions of Elvis Presley

Elvis shimmers and swivels in Baz Luhrmann’s rhinestone encrusted, cinematic treat. The circus is in town and it is a flamboyant, kaleidoscopic rollercoaster of a ride, as un-subtle as the King himself, with a soundtrack to match.

This is a film that aims to introduce Elvis Presley to a new audience as much as it aims to retell a familiar tale. Explosive performances and moving ballads capture both the spirit and soul of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Austin Butler as Elvis is sensational. His hip-swivelling sexuality, dazzling blue eyes and tragic vulnerability encapsulate the Elvis of legend. The early years are depicted as a frantic carnival; the later Las Vegas residency is displayed in all its lurid vulgarity. The undisputed villain of the piece is Colonel Parker, Elvis’ long-term manager, played by Tom Hanks.

The opening scene shows the bedridden Parker barely able to speak and haunted by ghosts, forewarning of Elviss own drug-induced demise. As narrator, Colonel Parker frames the film, attempting to control his star in death as he did in life. But the film has a message of its own: Elvis is set free, remixed for a future generation.

The story begins with a shoeless child, mesmerised by black gospel music at a tent revival in Tupelo, Mississippi; then moves to Beale Street blues where the teenage Elvis finds both image and inspiration. An explosive, electrifying performance of his first gig convinces us Butlers Elvis is the real deal: satin clad, orgasmic, wiggling and shakin’ -  it is the moment a new star is born.

Underpinning it all is a story of money and power, for beneath the glamour and excitement lurks exploitation. The birth of teen pop culture gave rise to a new teen-infused capitalism, and with whip in hand, Colonel Parker, ringmaster and charlatan, grasps the dollars. Plastic trinkets and Elvis paraphernalia are pushed on this new, lucrative market; creativity is smothered, controversy avoided, consumerism embraced. All the while the grandmaster slowly bleeds the life out of his star. I didnt kill Elvis,” Parker says at one point,I made Elvis.” The film shows he did both.

Elvis is first and foremost a musical, and luckily for us the music is superb. True to the genre, much of the story is told through Elvis hits. Obscenity and segregation laws are met head on with a powerful performance of “Trouble” while Luhrmann intercuts interracial mixing and the rantings of a segregationist senator; in a later moment Elvis defies Colonel Parker, by commenting on the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, through a deeply moving rendition of If I Can Dream”.

But don’t expect it to be all iconic Elvis. This is no documentary and at times the score is as unnerving as the whirling cinematography. The soundtrack is infused with fragments of Elvis techno and hip-hop; the classics are blended with an original score and remixes by the likes of Doja Cat, Eminem, Måneskin and Nardo Wick. The playlist during the closing credits brilliantly showcases the King’s influence on contemporary musicians. Black music of the future, as well as the black music of past, is celebrated.

Missing is the music of the white working class from which Elvis came. Country music played an integral part in Presley’s life and its influence can be heard as distinctly as gospel and blues. In the early days his records were labelled as country, he played at major country venues and toured and shared the stage with some of the greats – including Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Hank Snow. His first and last No. 1 singles were in the country music charts, I Forgot to Remember to Forget” (1955) and “Moody Blue” (1977); and it was at a Nashville country festival that he was given “Heartbreak Hotel” to record. But this genre is much derided in modern American culture, along with the class from which it originates, and its absence is a major omission in the film.

The focus on black blues and gospel is however rewarded by truly superb performances,  as some of Elvis’ most famous songs are returned to the original artists. Theres an oft repeated scene of the young Elvis peering into a juke joint enthralled by Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr) playing “That’s All Right Mama”. On Beale Street in Memphis we become as enraptured as Elvis by the soaring voices of Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton. Then there’s B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason). These scenes alone are worthy of the ticket price.

Elvis clearly absorbed the music of the South, living and breathing country, gospel and blues. That he grew up in a largely black neighbourhood enabled the blend that inspired his rock ’n’ roll. He never hid his cultural debt, and in 1957 told an interviewer, “[Black musicians] been singing it and playing it just like Im doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind”. Blues and gospel flow throughout the film as they did its star, and Luhrmann ensures no one leaves the cinema unversed in the origins of Elvis’ covers.

For all its 2 hours and 39 minutes, Elvis leaves much out and is over too soon. Dysfunctional family relationships are under explored; there are only mere hints of his infidelities, his over indulgence and burger binges; the Memphis Mafia is nowhere to be seen; and the infamous meeting with President Nixon, during which Elvis fumed about the left-wing degeneracy of Beatlemania, is ignored entirely. But none of this really matters.

Luhrmann presents us with a musical extravaganza that perfectly evokes the glitz, glamour and tragedy of Elvis, exuberant and heartbreaking in equal measure. As the movie ends and the final credits roll, we are left listening to the undisputed King of Rock ’n’ Roll remixed, rehabilitated and reborn.

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