In 2022, there is no one Elvis Presley. The One True Elvis is actually many Elvises, a deity with an infinite number of faces, refracted into an ever shifting pattern of pleasure and frustration, of contradictions and delights. For every Elvis myth, there’s a counter truth, and for every truth, a counter myth. He will never be resolved, or agreed upon. Which means that whether you love or loathe the movies of Baz Luhrmann, a kind of Bedazzler kit in filmmaker form, it’s easy to understand why he’d be attracted to the legend of Elvis Presley. The movie he’s made, Elvis, is both aggravating and fulfilling, a surface of sequined artificiality that reflects stark truths about our American pauper king with a cloth-of-gold voice. In a world where we want to believe we can close every mystery, Elvis, on and off the movie screen, continues to confound.
There was a beginning to Elvis, the survivor of a set of twins born to Gladys Presley on Jan. 8, 1935. But even now, 45 years after his death, there is still no ending. There will always be tension in the very idea of Elvis, who grew up poor in Memphis and ended up richer than he could have imagined. He makes some people angry and others deliriously happy. His life and career are woven into America’s ideas of race and class, but he also cuts across the grain of that fabric in jagged, unsettling strokes. Even if Elvis is forever, when Luhrmann first announced he was making an Elvis movie, back in 2014, the question might have been “Why now?” But in 2022—especially now that we’ve seen how politically, racially, and culturally fractured our nation could become—the many faces of Elvis form a sun mosaic that raises more questions than it answers. To look directly into its light is to see into ourselves, for better or worse.
Was Elvis merely inspired by Black artists, or did he steal from them outright? Was he a sexual abuser, first grooming an underage Priscilla Beaulieu—she was just 14 when the two met, in 1959—and then, after their marriage, subjecting her to any number of weird sexual proclivities? And who still cares about Elvis, anyway? At the time of his death, in 1977, he was a phenomenon who still had his fans, but one who was also drug-riddled, fat, and sad. For a time, he was more punch line than legend, and genteel Southerners, in particular, often thought of as him as a gold-plated hick, gauche and offensive in his very being. In the 1990s, when I was living in Boston, a co-worker of mine who’d grown up in Tennessee was appalled when she learned of my love for him. “He’s the reason,” she told me, “people from the North think Southerners eat dirt.”
You would think that by now older people would be tired of talking about Elvis, and that younger people don’t care about him at all, but the truth isn’t so easy to parse. Now that Elvis is back in the spotlight, some have taken to TikTok and Twitter to build angry but precarious cases against him for his treatment of Priscilla, who became his wife in 1967, defining her as a victim of abuse even though she has not claimed that status for herself. She has admitted her union with Elvis was complicated—how could it not be? Yet even today, there’s a need to make Elvis manageable, less dangerous to our sense of order. He feeds into our modern need, fueled in part by reckonings that were a long time coming, to reduce people to something we can control—even if controlling the past is impossible.
Elsewhere on TikTok, 26-year-old Elvis Roberts, an uncanny Australian Elvis look-alike, holds sway over 865,000 followers with his swoony bedroom eyes and cultivated half-sneer. If older Elvis impersonators tend to favor the jumpsuit-era Elvis as they age—the costume is forgiving of expanding girth—the dream of the young Elvis, as embodied by people like Roberts, coexists with the tragic, beautiful wreck he became. In this sense, his only true cultural twin is Marilyn Monroe, a star whose beauty, vulnerability, and sly intelligence made her so magnetic in life that we still hold her close long after her death (and whose story will be told in a movie due this fall, Blonde, an attempt to explore her complicated legacy). Elvis’ beauty in youth matched Marilyn’s; think of him in radiant profile, as timeless as an ancient coin. His music endures partly because in his voice we hear confidence and longing, entwined opposites that speak to similar contradictions in ourselves.
Strangely, or maybe not, rather than falling victim to our fragmented attention spans, Elvis has proved to be the perfect foil for them, surfing a million waves simultaneously. And every seemingly easy conclusion made about Elvis—the claim, for instance, that he stole from Black artists—has a counterweight that clouds facile certainty. One unequivocal truth is that although he drew from all musical sources—including country and pop—he both loved and was deeply influenced by Black musicians. It’s also true that he made a great deal more money off Black, or Black-influenced, music than most Black artists of his time. His 1956 megahit “Hound Dog” certainly netted a lot more dough for him than it did for Big Mama Thornton, who earned just $500 off her own hit 1952 version. The irony is that the song was written specifically for her, by the white songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
But Elvis didn’t steal the song from Thornton. Cover versions are part of pop music’s vernacular, and it’s the songwriters who earn the big royalties anyway. (Reportedly, Leiber and Stoller hated Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” much preferring the rolling sensuality of Thornton’s.) And even if being white and male gave Elvis certain advantages over Thornton, especially in the world of music contracts, his white-man status wasn’t as huge an advantage as you might think. Precisely because he broke rules about how white men should look and sound and move, plenty of white Americans, especially parents, thought of him as a degenerate—a not-so-veiled indication of America’s deep racist roots. Black music wasn’t a thing any white person was supposed to aspire to. Even if Elvis eventually reached unimaginable heights of popularity, he was an outlier in his time, a comet the likes of which no one had ever seen. And like all great artists, he built on what came before him, on songs and sounds he loved and admired. As much as he yearned for fame, the music came first. He’s part of the story of racial injustice in this country, but the whole of it is too large and unwieldy to be laid at his feet.
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Given the complexity of Elvis’ legacy, you’d think a dazzlemeister like Luhrmann would be the worst filmmaker to take it on. Luhrmann’s movies—even the great ones, like his 1996 Shakespeare-via-Tiger Beat romance Romeo + Juliet, or The Great Gatsby from 2013, a fringed shimmy of decadence and loneliness—are loathed by many for what they see as the director’s garishness, his adoration of spectacle, his penchant for headache-inducing mincemeat-and-glitter editing. And Elvis is in some ways a mess, just as Elvis himself was a mess.
Yet the movie’s frenetic, prismatic quality may be the best way to deal with the messy whole of Elvis. At times Elvis is barely a movie—the first hour or so is shredded and frenzied, as if Luhrmann were time-traveling through a holographic rendering of Elvis’ life, dipping and darting through the significant events with little time to touch down. And Luhrmann’s use of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ diabolically crooked manager, as a framing device—he’s played, with a weird accent, by Tom Hanks—sometimes derails the film. It’s as though building a case for Elvis’ victimhood were the only means of earning our sympathy for this prodigiously gifted, haunted man.
But the exuberance of Elvis, refracted in the doppelgänger energy of its star, Austin Butler, elevates it to a realm above taste, where only sensation matters. Butler conjures the guilelessness of Elvis’ face, his soft yet chiseled cheekbones, the look in his eyes that says, “I’m up for anything—are you?” He and Luhrmann hop through the major events of Elvis’ life, sometimes going for long stretches without taking a breath. Elvis is exhausting; it’s also exhilarating, a crazy blur you can’t look away from.
As a strict 100% factual biopic, Elvis is probably a failure. But as a biography of an idea, it’s as much a triumph as you could hope for, a work of controlled and sustained mad love for an artist whose story is never-ending. The cultural critic Greil Marcus once said of Elvis, “His voice gets to the heart of everything you want out of life.” A balls-out hip-shaker in a pink suit that appears to be made of liquid, an unmanageable fantasy in tight leather pants, a crooner pouring his silken soul into us, like an offering, from a Vegas stage: there’s an Elvis for every one of us, and for every
part of us—a man who came from less than nowhere and spoke of all the things he wanted to be. If he fell short, well, so do we.