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New Film Revisits Elvis Presley’s Complicated Legacy


In 2022, there is only one Elvis Presley left. The One True Elvis is actually many Elvis, a deity with an infinite number of faces, refracted in an ever-changing pattern of pleasure and frustration, contradictions and delights. For every Elvis myth, there is a counter-truth, and for every truth, a counter-myth. It will never be resolved or agreed upon. Which means whether you love or hate the films of Baz Luhrmann, a kind of Bedazzler kit in filmmaker form, it’s easy to see why he’d be drawn to the legend of Elvis Presley. The movie he made Elvis, is both annoying and fulfilling, a surface of spangled artificiality that reflects harsh truths about our poor American king with a voice of cloth of gold. In a world where we want to believe we can solve all mysteries, Elvis, on and off the movie screen, continues to confuse.

There was a beginning for Elvis, the survivor of a set of twins born to Gladys Presley on January 8, 1935. But even now, 45 years after his death, there is still no end. There will always be tension in the very idea of ​​Elvis, who grew up poor in Memphis and ended up wealthier than he could have imagined. It makes some people mad and others wildly happy. His life and career are woven in American ideas of race and class, but he also cuts the grain of that fabric into jagged, unsettling strokes. Even though Elvis is forever, when Luhrmann first announced he was shooting an Elvis movie, 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 solar mosaic that raises more questions than it answers. To look directly into its light is to see into ourselves, for better or for worse.

Was Elvis simply inspired by black artists or did he steal them altogether? Was he a sexual abuser, first grooming underage Priscilla Beaulieu – she was just 14 when the two met, in 1959 – then, after their marriage, subjecting her to a number of bizarre sexual inclinations? And who still cares about Elvis, anyway? At the time of his death, in 1977, he was a phenomenon that still had its fans, but was also drugged, fat and sad. For a time he was more of a punch line than a legend, and distinguished Southerners in particular often saw him as a gold-plated, clumsy, offensive hick in his very being. In the 1990s, when I was living in Boston, a colleague of mine who grew up in Tennessee was dismayed when she learned that I loved her. “He’s the reason,” she told me, “Northerners think Southerners eat dirt.”

Read more: by Baz Luhrmann Elvis is an exhilarating and infuriating spectacle, but made with love

You would think that by now old people would be tired of talking about Elvis and young people would not care about him at all, but the truth is not so easy to analyze. Now that Elvis is back in the spotlight, some have taken to TikTok and Twitter to build angry but shaky cases against him for his treatment of Priscilla, who became his wife in 1967, defining her as a victim of abuse even though she did not claim this status for herself. She admitted her union with Elvis was complicated – how could it not be? Yet even today there is a need to make Elvis manageable, less dangerous to our sense of order. It feeds our modern need, fueled in part by calculations that were long in coming, to reduce people to something we can control, even if controlling the past is impossible.

Elsewhere on TikTok, 26-year-old Elvis Roberts, a bizarre Australian Elvis lookalike, dominates more than 865,000 followers with his swooning bedroom eyes and cultured half-sneer. If older Elvis impersonators tend to prefer the Elvis of the jumpsuit era as they get older – the suit is forgiving girth expansion – the dream of young Elvis, embodied by the likes of Roberts, coexists with the tragic and beautiful wreck he has become. In that sense, her 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 to us long after her death (and whose the story will be told in a film to be released this fall, Blond, an attempt to explore his complicated inheritance). The beauty of Elvis in his youth corresponded to that of Marilyn; think of him in a radiant profile, as timeless as an antique coin. His music endures in part because in his voice we hear confidence and desire, interwoven opposites that speak to similar contradictions within ourselves.

In 2022, the many faces of Elvis form a solar mosaic that raises more questions than it answers

Mario Tama—Getty Images

Strangely, or maybe not, rather than falling victim to our fragmented attention spans, Elvis turned out to be the perfect foil for them, riding a million waves simultaneously. And every seemingly easy conclusion made about Elvis—the claim, for example, that he robbed black artists—has a counterweight that obscures the easy certainty. An unequivocal truth is that although he drew on all musical sources, including country and pop, he loved and was deeply influenced by black musicians. It is also true that he made far more money from black or black-influenced music than most black artists of his time. His 1956 megahit “Hound Dog” certainly made a lot more money for him than it did for Big Mama Thornton, who only made $500 on his own 1952 release. The irony is that the song was written especially for her, by white songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

But Elvis didn’t steal the song from Thornton. Covers are part of the vernacular of pop music, and it’s the songwriters who earn the big royalties anyway. (Apparently Leiber and Stoller hated Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” much preferring Thornton’s rolling sexiness.) And while being white and masculine gave Elvis certain advantages over Thornton, especially in the world of musical contracts, his White male status was not as huge an advantage as one might think. Precisely because he broke the rules about how white men look, sound and move, many white Americans, especially parents, considered him a degenerate – a not-so-veiled indication of America’s deep racist roots. Black music was not something a white person was supposed to aspire to. Although Elvis eventually reached unimaginable heights of popularity, he was an exception in his day, a comet like 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 aspired to fame, the music came first. He is part of the story of racial injustice in this country, but the whole thing is too big and too heavy to be put at his feet.

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Given the complexity of Elvis’ legacy, you’d think a dazzling like Luhrmann would be the worst filmmaker to take on. Luhrmann’s films, even the greatest, like his Shakespeare-via-tiger beat romance Romeo + Juliet, Where Gatsby the magnificent from 2013, a shimmy fringed with decadence and loneliness – are hated by many for what they see as the director’s scream, his adoration of spectacle, his penchant for editing mincemeat and glitter that induces ailments of head. And Elvis is in some ways a mess, just like Elvis himself was a mess.

Still, the frenetic, prismatic quality of the film is perhaps the best way to handle Elvis’ messy ensemble. On time Elvis is barely a movie – the first hour or so is jagged and frenetic, as if Luhrmann is time-traveling through a holographic rendering of Elvis’ life, diving and dashing through the important events with little time to land. And Luhrmann’s use of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ devilishly twisted director, as a framing device — he’s played, with an odd accent, by Tom Hanks — sometimes derails the film. It’s as if building a case for the victimization of Elvis is the only way to win our sympathy for this prodigiously gifted and haunted man.

New Film Revisits Elvis Presley's Complicated Legacy

Austin Butler as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s new film

Warner Bros.

But the exuberance of Elvis, refracted in the lookalike energy of its star, Austin Butler, elevates it above taste, where only feel matters. Butler evokes the naivety of Elvis’ face, his soft but chiseled cheekbones, the look in his eyes that says, “I’m ready for anything, aren’t I?” He and Luhrmann jump through major events in Elvis’ life, sometimes going for long stretches without catching their breath. Elvis is exhausting; it’s also exhilarating, a crazy blur that 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 of a triumph as one would hope, a controlled and sustained work of mad love for an artist whose story never ends. Cultural critic Greil Marcus once said of Elvis, “His voice goes to the heart of everything you want out of life. A ballsy hip-shaker in a pink suit that looks like it’s made of liquid, an unmanageable fantasy in skintight leather pants, a crooner pouring his silky soul into us, like an offering, from a Vegas stage: there’s an Elvis for every one of us, and for every
a part of us – a man who came from less than nowhere and talked about everything he wanted to be. If he failed, well, so did we.

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