Elvis Is Shocking, Chaotic, and Very Good

Thrillingly, director Baz Luhrmann makes the remarkable response to the singer feel like the only possible option to being offered this much pleasure, this much freedom.

One of the real pleasures of Baz Luhrmann’s movies is that he drives purists round the bend. It’s not just that Luhrmann is ambitious but that his ambition has gravitated towards venerated pieces of high-art which gatekeepers of all sorts—some of them film critics—see as desecrated by the director’s razzle-dazzle, pell-mell technique. His detractors will never admit it, but that approach has shown a better, more intimate understanding of his sources than academic reverence ever could. Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet did the essential thing any version of that work must: it made the audience fall in love with its two young lovers and made us believe they couldn’t live without each other. The complaints laid against his The Great Gatsby were just embarrassing. Reducing the novel to an anti-materialist screed, the film’s detractors showed no feel for what has long drawn readers to the book: the sensation of being given entrée into a glamorous world, and Gatsby’s heedless romanticism which in the novel is inseparable from a peculiarly American strain of aspiration. Luhrmann saw the glory in the striving, the beating on against the current Nick Carraway speaks of in the indelible last lines. It is a magnificent film of the greatest American novel.

With Elvis, which is characteristically overwhelming and maddening and exciting, Luhrmann has a subject which has never had the respect of high-culture arbiters yet. The irony is that Elvis Presley is the most significant American cultural figure of the 20th Century. Unlike the Dadaists and the be-boppers and the abstract expressionists and the beats, Elvis enacted his rejection of convention and conformity within mass culture—and mass culture responded. The world looks different today because people heard him and looked at him and realized that the paths of predictable respectability that had been laid out for their lives even in advance of their existence need not be followed. Elvis enacted a vision of America that transgressed boundaries of high and low, rich and poor, Black and white, propriety and liberation, a democratic vision that, as Bob Dylan commented later made the country it took place in seem, once again, “wide open.”

It’s a case that still has to be made, for a lot of reasons. It has to be made because there are those still not willing to see Elvis as anything beyond a vulgar joke; those who are ready to associate any White Southerner with the bigotry that has deformed American life for a century and a half. And then there’s the uninformed notion that has dogged Elvis for years—that he lifted his sound and his style solely from black performers—a lie that has been given new life in recent years.

The world looks different today because people heard him and looked at him...

Luhrmann comes dangerously close to putting forth the notion himself in a sequence when the boy Elvis sneaks a peek in on Arthur Crudup play “That’s All Right, Mama” in a juke joint and is then drawn to a Pentecostal revival service across the way. Country, which certainly had an influence on Elvis, is represented solely by the staid figure of Hank Snow (David Wenham), who disapproves of Elvis. Absent completely is the white pop Elvis was listening to along with the rest of the country. (Elvis’s biographer Peter Guralnick wrote of neighborhood gatherings where the teenage Elvis sang songs by Kay Starr, Bing and Garry Crosby, soft, moonlight romance songs. And Guralnick notes that the singer’s vocal on “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine,” recorded during the Sun Sessions, is obviously modeled on Dean Martin’s hit version.) The script also flirts with the notion that it was easier for Elvis to get away with what he did because he was white, which is nonsense. Much of the original reaction against Elvis was precisely because his sweaty, overtly sexual stage presence degraded the very idea of whiteness at the time. (The movie itself confirms that when we see newsreel footage of the segregationist Mississippi Senator James Eastland claiming that rock ‘n’ roll is a plot to drag white youngsters down to the level of the Negro.) Luhrmann also plays with the idea that being white made Elvis the acceptable face of what was then called race music. That’s the product of lazy listening. Elvis deliberately combined too many strains in his music to reduce it to one sound. Put Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” or Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” next to Elvis’ versions. The originals contain nothing of the immensity of Elvis’ versions, his determination to break free of all restraint and to take you with him.

Conflating events and telescoping time, zooming from one era to the other, often before we’ve gotten a chance to settle down where we are, Elvis is not going to replace Peter Guralnick’s two-volume life of Elvis as the definitive biography, nor does it approach “Presliad,” the great essay that ends Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, still the best critical thinking anyone has done on the subject.

But what Luhrmann sets out to do, and what he accomplishes so thrillingly, is to make the shock of Elvis once again fresh. When Elvis plays the Louisiana Hayride radio show we see a young woman, whose boyfriend has just heckled Elvis as a “fairy,” moaning orgasmically at the sight of him. Elvis’s mother Gladys (Helen Thomsen) sees the hunger of the girls in the audience and is sure her son is about to be at the center of a human sacrifice. Luhrmann ups the ante when Elvis, the increasing target of public condemnation and threatened with jail, is meant to tone it down at a big outdoor show and instead ramps up everything. The movie interpolates “Trouble,” the song that opened the 1968 comeback special, and uses the opening lines—“You’re lookin’ for trouble/you came to the right place”—as Elvis’s defiant answer to those trying to tame him. Ordered to stand still, Elvis does just that, moving only his pinky. What follows is his demonstration of what happens when the music takes over. He grinds his hips, writhes in invisible chains of the most exquisite bondage, falls to the stage, brings himself to the edge of the stage so the faithful can reach up to touch their idol, so his sweat can drop on them like an anointing. Luhrmann doesn’t allow us to see the fans’ reaction as hysteria. Instead, it seems the only possible response to being offered this much pleasure, this much freedom.

elvis movie review
The pressure was on Butler to deliver—and he handed the goods over in spades.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

What’s so stunning about these scenes is that Luhrmann strips away our supposed sophistication, and our historical distance, from these events so that we’re seeing them in the same way Roy Orbison described first seeing Elvis. “There was just nothing in the culture to compare it to,” he said in 1986, talking about his own reaction to hearing his music used in Blue Velvet. Luhrmann doesn’t allow us to affect cool at what shocked the conservative ‘50s. This is shocking. Just like seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time, the emotional violence of it goes hand in hand with the thrill, the realization that to align yourself with this is going to be a kind of cultural coming out, a commitment to slamming doors shut and hoping you have the guts to go through the ones that open. And yet, there is a spiritual element to it as well, a carryover of that moment that the young Elvis goes from juke joint to revival tent, which is to say from sin to redemption. This is a revolution that begins in the body and revels in the body even as it attempts to break free of corporeal bounds.

All of this is to say that what Luhrmann has done is to treat Elvis as both a conscious transgressor and a conscious artist, the honor denied Elvis when he’s condescended to as an untutored folk artist, a hillbilly wild man who got lucky, or a curio that has as much weight as a reproduction of an old Coke ad.

None of it would come across if it weren’t for the charisma of Austin Butler in the title role. It’s a wonderful performance, and even more impressive when you realize the pressure on him: a largely unknown actor getting his first leading role playing someone whose image and voice are embedded in the public consciousness. A better-known performer would have brought past associations into the part with him. Without those associations, we can just see Butler as Elvis, though what he does, even at its most uncanny, goes far beyond imitation. For all the physicality of this performance, for all his beauty as a camera subject, this is a fully realized psychological portrait, one that makes you feel Elvis’s pride, defiance, frustration, dashed dreams, and, finally, his suffocation in the life he’s living. For the movie to work you need to love this man. Butler makes that easy.

Luhrmann doesn’t allow us to affect cool at what shocked the conservative ‘50s. This is shocking.

Just as Tom Hanks makes it easy to be repelled by his Colonel Tom Parker. There has been some question as to why Parker, breathing his last, just as Charles Foster Kane is when the movie about him opens, narrates the film. Is the movie, people have wondered, from Parker’s point of view? No. The Colonel is the serpent that slithers through the movie’s never-realized Eden, hissing temptation again and again, not just a con man, but the most devious of manipulators. And that deviousness comes through the prosthetics that turn Hanks into this blubbery troll. It’s an insidious performance. The Colonel, undocumented Dutch immigrant though he was, stands for America as surely as Elvis did, the America that wants to tame Elvis, dilute him, neuter him, deny the promise he holds out.

There is a way in which you can understand why Luhrmann drives some people bonkers. He can wear you out. He seems to be incapable of conceiving of a scene with two characters talking in a simple shot/reverse-shot. Luhrmann is adept at hitting upon some visual image or snatch of a song that drives home the meaning of scene—and then incapable of not repeating the device until it’s drained of its effect. The last third of Elvis, the inevitable downslide in any show business tragedy, lags. And while, to be fair it’s the hardest part of the story to tell (the same ground, covered in Guralnick’s Careless Love, is the saddest story I know), you want something more than the rococo visual take on American excess, the slashing edits, the expressionist clouds of visuals and sound drifting across the screen. I watched Elvis alternately thrilled and wondering how much longer in his career Luhrmann can keep up this style. The last thing I want is to see his ambition tamped down, but he needs to allow himself to go deeper beneath the surface than he has.

But then the most dangerous thing you can do with Luhrmann is underrate him, as the end of Elvis soon reminded me. Luhrmann knows that part of Elvis’s tragedy is that for all the self-destruction and waste of his talent, his great gift, that voice, never deserted him. It’s there in the performances that kept coming, though buried in scads of schlock, right until the end of his life. And it’s one of the final performances, given in Rapid City, South Dakota on June 21, 1977, less than two months before he died, a cover of “Unchained Melody” (also used in the climax of Eugene Jarecki’s great 2017 documentary The King), that Luhrmann closes with. It’s startling because Luhrmann wipes away every bit of artifice he’s used, leaving us with the reality of this decayed giant. It’s by far the most daring device in the movie, emotionally the deepest, and it broke me. Hanks’s Colonel tells us that Elvis died because of his love for us. But it’s our love for him that Luhrmann insists on finally, and the man he insists on our loving is not the rock ‘n’ roll hero of our dreams but a man who couldn’t make his own dreams come true, damn close though he came. Elvis is still reaching for that dream at the end of Luhrmann’s film, just as Gatsby will forever be staring at the green light across the bay. It’s not “Unchained Melody” but another song you might hear him singing in your head as you leave the theater: “Don't be blue, don't you be blue/I'll be faithful, I'll be true/Always true, true to you.”

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