What Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” did right, and a lot didn’t

in his 2022 movie Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann tackles a subject in a biopic that can be as tough as Elvis and the star’s sprawling and complex legacy. The result is an entertaining and sometimes uplifting film, and quite rightly so. However, its focus on style, its relatively narrow focus, which oddly makes his manager almost an equal co-star, also helps to obscure or otherwise ignore much of what Elvis did, and what made his legacy so important reason.

The paradoxical legacy of Elvis is, of course, the tragedy of rock legends turned into tragic demigods or overrated obsolete. He was the best-selling artist of all time — and many thought he was irrelevant in the years after his breakout. He’s a legitimate civil rights figure — but probably the original cultural appropriator. He helped achieve sexual liberation in America — and in his personal life, he was often very immature. He was a man of real historic significance — who ended up being at the center of modern tabloid culture.There’s Elvis Presley, human beings – and then there’s the huge legacy Elvis!; the first is real, and the latter is what others want him to be.

It takes a lot of ambition to try to capture and understand Elvis in a two-hour biopic.In many ways, Luhrmann, the grand cinematic vision he saw in the film, such as Moulin Rouge (2001) and the great gatsby (2013), is the right person for the job. It was hard to imagine contemporary life before the arrival of rock and roll. To convey the impact of this landmark cultural shift centered on Elvis, Luhrmann used a superhero or even a cartoon visual style in Elvis’ stories, sometimes literally, which worked in many ways . Luhrmann creates a powerful narrative and uses the necessary creative license to condense a lifetime into two and a half hours, and conveys some of the essence of an almost mythical tale.

On the other hand, this method fails to capture the nuances and details of a person who often appears in epic grand terms.One does not necessarily leave Elvis Knowing Elvis’ inner life doesn’t come with a better understanding of how all the context of 1950s America, including race, actually shaped Elvis and his career.

I’ve written about Elvis and the birth of rock and roll (Devil’s Music, Holy Roller, and Hillbilly), so I guess I can reasonably assess where Luhrmann’s films are factually and historically right and wrong.

Presley came out of nowhere.Oneprecise.

Every biography of Elvis (1935-1977) mentions that his family grew up very poor in Little Tupelo, Mississippi. I mean, the neighborhood of Presleys is called Shake Rag – not to be confused with “Bel-Air” or “Park Avenue”. When Elvis was 13, the Presley family moved to the Memphis project, which was a step up. Luhrmann’s portrayal is vivid and popular, helping to greatly humanize and contextualize Presley (played by Austin Butler) and his rise from what is essentially a bunch of shacks.

Elvis grew up in the rural South and lived among African Americans.Oneprecise.

Presley is also known to have grown up with African-Americans, as the movie depicts. However, this is the South under Jim Crow laws, so it’s always a little fuzzy when we’re talking about how much interaction there is between people. Even under Jim Crow, it was not uncommon for young black and white kids to play together — at least often until they went to school and were taught to segregate. (Berrey, 2009) Shake Rag, although not integrated itselfof course there is a lot of interracial interaction and familiarity, which Boorman conveys very well again.

Pentecostalism was crucial in shaping Elvis as a performer.MeterBasically accurate.

Early dramatic Pentecostal tent revival scene Elvis Although rooted in certain truths, it is quite symbolic. Pentecostals are known for their warm service and loud music. The parishioners may be “mentally killed”, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), sometimes tossing and turning, including “rolling around” in church aisles; hence, “holy rollers”.

exist Elvis, Elvis briefly crossed the line and was welcomed into the Black service. In real life, the Presleys were Pentecostals and attended white-only services. Elvis does observe and hear Blake’s service, but only outside the church, as shown at the beginning of the scene. He’s still hugely affected by it all. As such, the tent scene is presented as an exaggerated heroic origin story, so it might be a bit overkill. Nonetheless, the scene symbolically represents the inner influence of Pentecostalism on the young Elvis and the spiritual kinship he felt with African Americans.

Some further background. From the beginning of the 20th century, the history of modern Pentecostalism is strikingly similar to that of rock and roll. That said, although it officially started in Los Angeles in 1906, it quickly spread to the rural South, at first, incorporating congregational, wild, high-energy music that outsiders thought the practitioners were crazy. In fact, it seems no coincidence (as I’ve assumed elsewhere) that many of the most important and exciting names in early rock and roll include the godmother of ’30s rock and ’40s gospel star Sister Rosetta Sape , Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Presley, not to mention James Brown (who came a little late), all grew up on Pentecost.

Elvis’ roots lie in country music.Meterostly is missing in this movie and therefore misleading.

Elvis Understandably, it focuses primarily on the musical roots of its themes in blues and black gospel. There is no doubt that the heart and soul of Elvis’ performance style and rock and roll itself came from African Americans. But Presley was also born and raised in country and pop, although Luhrmann showed little of that influence. Country music is just a comparison to Hank Snow’s calm, old country music and the thrill of rock and roll. Then, almost everywhere, Presley was shown bringing a “hillbilly” vibe to his debut single, a “rock” cover of the blues song “That’s Alright Mama.”

Historically, black artists are rightly praised and there is no question that Presley owes them. Still, Luhrmann’s portrayal sacrifices accolades for Presley’s voice and the traditional country, bluegrass and honky-tonk sounds that were central to early rock and roll. For example, even the signature style of black rock icon Chuck Berry didn’t fully come together until he embraced “hillbilly” sounds like “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode.”

Elvis had a strong personal relationship with African Americans.largeVery accurate.

as the picture shows Elvis, the young Presley was hanging out on Beale Street, Memphis’ blues mecca, as a teenager. Luhrmann again used artistic license to pair Presley with the real-life Elvis-friendly BB King (Kevin Harrison Jr. in the movie) as well as Jr. Richard (Alton Mason) and Rosetta Sa Sister Pei (Yola). As such, the scene exemplifies Presley’s time on Beale Street, as well as his influence on the contemporary black music scene and some background symbols.

In real life, the personal accounts of some of the most prominent black Memphis men of the time consistently gave a strong portrayal of Presley as a person, even distinguishing him from some of the other white men at the famed Sun Records, They weren’t always so warm to black guys. Even more remarkably, BB King, who was 10 years older than Elvis and was already a star in Memphis when Elvis appeared, recalled that Presley would call him “Mr.” which he appreciated.

Another real-life example came in late 1956, shortly after Presley became a superstar, and was not featured in the movie. Presley appeared at Memphis’ large annual benefit concert for underprivileged African-American children and performed with leading black entertainers from Memphis and beyond. For white people of the time and place, simply showing up was an acknowledged and indisputable act of bravery. The black kids in the crowd, especially the girls, went crazy for him. In fact, especially early in his career, Elvis sold many records to black people.

That being said, Luhrmann’s portrayal of Presley as fully immersed in black life in Memphis goes a little too far, and at one point, the anachronistic rap soundtrack furthers this. He was white in Memphis in the mid-’50s, and segregation was far from over. So if the film takes the visual representation of immersion too literally, it’s exaggerating.

Elvis’ family is important.Oneprecise.

Elvis Accurately covers some other well-known facts, including Presley’s twin brother who died at birth, and double expectations of Elvis; Elvis is mom’s child; Elvis’ mom, Gladys Press Leigh (Helen Thomson) died when Elvis was 23 years old. Perhaps little known, as shown in the film, Gladys died of cirrhosis of the liver, possibly as a direct result of alcoholism.

Interestingly, the actual funeral scene after Gladys’ unexpected death was even more pitiful than the movie portrayed. In the film, Elvis appears in his mother’s closet, sobbing while clutching her clothes. In fact, it was noticed that Elvis had been sitting next to the coffin opened by his mother, greeting people. It was like they were throwing a party together, as one guest described. After that, he would not leave his mother’s body for three days.

As for Presley’s father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), a friend of mine once asked me where Vernon was in the 1970s, when his son’s mental state plummeted and he became addicted. I drew a blank – except to say he was an emotionally deficient father. Luhrmann (and Roxburgh) captures this so well that Vernon barely appears and almost disappears from the film.

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