Baz Luhrmann: Elvis (2022) | poster excerpt

What Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ Got Right and a Lot That It Didn’t

Baz Luhrmann used many entertaining razzle-dazzle techniques to capture Elvis Presley’s complex story on film. He even got some things right. But there’s a lot he didn’t.

Baz Luhrmann
Warner Bros
24 June 2022 (US)

In his 2022 film Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann tackled what might be as tough of a subject for a biopic as there is in Elvis Presley and the star’s massively complex legacy. The result is an entertaining and sometimes exhilarating film, and it gets a lot right. However, its concern with style, a relatively narrow focus, and oddly making his manager almost an equal co-star also serves to gloss over or otherwise ignore much of what made Elvis and what made his legacy so important.

Elvis’ paradoxical legacy is, of course, that of a rock legend-turned-tragic-fall of either a demigod or an overrated has-been. He is the greatest selling artist of all time—while many considered him irrelevant within a couple of years of his break out. He is a legitimate civil rights figure—but possibly the original cultural appropriator. He helped sexually liberate America—while often being deeply immature in his personal life. He was a genuinely historic individual—and ended up at the epicenter of modern tabloid culture. There is Elvis Presley, the human being—and then there is the massive legacy of ELVIS!; the first is real, while the latter is what others wanted him to be.

Trying to capture and make sense of Elvis in a two-hour biopic takes a lot of ambition. In many ways, Luhrmann, he of the grand cinematic vision seen in films such as Moulin Rouge (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013), is the right guy for the job. It can be quite difficult to visualize contemporary life before rock ‘n’ roll arrives. To communicate the impact of this landmark cultural shift, which Elvis was at the epicenter of, Luhrmann uses a super-hero and even cartoon-visual style to Elvis’ story, sometimes literally, which works well in many ways. Luhrmann creates a strong narrative and uses the necessary creative license to condense a lifetime into two-and-a-half hours and convey some of the essences of a near-mythological story.

On the other hand, that approach cannot capture the nuance and details of a man too often seen in epic and grandiose terms. One does not necessarily walk away from Elvis knowing Elvis’ inner life, nor a better understanding of how all of the context of 1950s America, including race, actually shaped Elvis the person and his career.

I’ve written about Elvis and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll (Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers, and Hillbillies), so I thought I could reasonably assess what Luhrmann’s film got factually and historically right and what it didn’t.

Presley came from nowhere. Accurate.

Every bio of Elvis (1935-1977) mentions that his family grew up dirt poor in tiny Tupelo, Mississippi. I mean, the Presleys’ neighborhood was called Shake Rag—not to be confused with “Bel-Air” or “Park Avenue”. When the Presleys moved to the projects in Memphis when Elvis was 13, it was a step up. Luhrmann’s depiction is vivid and welcome and helps to greatly humanize and contextualize Presley (played by Austin Butler) and his rise from what was essentially a collection of shacks.

Elvis grew up in the rural South, living among African Americans. Accurate.

It is also fairly well known that Presley grew up alongside African Americans, as the film depicts. Yet, this was the South under Jim Crow laws, so it has always been a bit hazy about how much interaction among people we are talking about. Even under Jim Crow, it was not uncommon for young Black and white kids to play together—often at least until they were school-aged and taught to segregate. (Berrey, 2009) Shake Rag, while not integrated per se, certainly had much interracial interaction and familiarity, which Buhrmann, again, conveys well.

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

The dramatic Pentecostal tent-revival scene early on Elvis was pretty symbolic though rooted in some truth. Pentecostals are known for their spirited services and raucous music. Parishioners may be “slain in the spirit”, speak in tongues (glossolalia), and sometimes writhe about, including “rolling” around in the church aisles; hence, “holy rollers”.

In Elvis, Elvis briefly crosses the race line and is welcomed into a Black service. In real life, the Presleys were Pentecostal and attended whites-only services. Elvis did observe and hear Black services, but only from outside the churches, such as was shown at the start of the scene. He was still enormously impacted by it all. Thus, the tent scene is presented in an over-the-top, hero-origin-story fashion, and thus was maybe a bit much. Still, the scene symbolically represents the internal impact of Pentecostalism on young Elvis, as well as the spiritual kinship he would have felt with African Americans.

Some further background. The history of modern Pentecostalism, from the turn of the 20th century, amazingly parallels the story of rock. That is, though it formally started in Los Angeles in 1906, it quickly spread to the rural South, with, at first, integrated congregations, wild, high-energy music, and outsiders considering practitioners to be insane. In fact, (and as I have posited elsewhere) it does not seem to be a coincidence that many of both the most important and most exciting names in early rock ‘n’ roll, including the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, ’30 and ’40s gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Presley, not to mention James Brown (who came just a bit later), were all raised Pentecostal.

Elvis’ has roots in country music. Mostly missing in this film and thus misleading.

Elvis mostly understandably focuses on its subject’s musical roots in the blues and Black gospel. There is no question that the heart and soul of Elvis’ performing style, and rock ‘n’ roll itself, came from African Americans. But Presley was born and raised in country and pop music, as well, although Luhrmann showed almost none of that influence. Country music was only used to contrast Hank Snow’s staid, old-timey country sounds with the exhilaration of rock. Then, almost out of nowhere, Presley was shown bringing a “hillbilly” feel to his debut single, a “rockabilly” cover of the blues song, “That’s Alright Mama”.

It is historically accurate to properly credit Black artists and to leave no question as to Presley’s indebtedness to them. Still, Luhrmann’s depiction does this at the expense of giving credit to the traditional country, bluegrass, and honky-tonk sounds that were all crucial to Presley’s sound and early rock ‘n’ roll. Even Black rock ‘n’ roll icon Chuck Berry’s signature style, for example, did not fully come together until he embraced “hillbilly” sounds, e.g., “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode”.

Elvis had strong personal relationships with African Americans. Largely accurate.

As was shown in Elvis, a young Presley spent time hanging around Beale Street, the blues music mecca of Memphis, when he was in his late teens. Luhrmann, again, uses artistic license to great effect to put Presley literally in the same room with the likes of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film), whom Elvis was friendly with in real life, as well as Little Richard (Alton Mason), and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). This scene thus embodies Presley’s time on Beale Street and symbolically his influences and some context with the contemporary Black music scene.

In real life, personal accounts from some of the most prominent Black Memphians at that time uniformly gave strong accounts of Presley as a person, even distinguishing him from some of the other white guys at famed Sun Records, that were not always as warm to Black folks. Of further note, B.B. King, who was ten years older than Elvis and already an established star in Memphis when Elvis came onto the scene, recalled that Presley would call him “Sir”, which he appreciated.

Another real-life example, not shown in the film, came at the end of 1956, not long after Presley had become a superstar. Presley showed up and performed at a large, annual charity concert in Memphis for underprivileged African American children, with major Black entertainers from Memphis and beyond. Just showing up was an acknowledged and inarguably gutsy move for a white guy at that time and place. The Black kids in the crowd, and especially the girls, went crazy for him. Indeed, and especially earlier in his career, Elvis sold many records to Black people.

Having said that, Luhrmann goes a bit too far in depicting Presley as being utterly immersed in Black life in Memphis, at one point further represented by an anachronistic rap soundtrack. He was still a white guy in Memphis in the mid-’50s, and segregation was far from over. As such, if the film’s visual representation of that immersion is taken too literally, it overstates the matter.

Elvis’ family matters. Accurate.

Elvis accurately covers some other well-known facts, including Presley’s twin brother dying at birth and doubled expectations being placed on Elvis; Elvis being a mama’s boy; and Elvis’ mom, Gladys Presley (Helen Thomson), dying when Elvis was 23. Maybe less well known, and shown in the film, are that Gladys died of cirrhosis, likely as a direct result of alcoholism.

Interestingly, the real-life funeral scene after Gladys’ unexpected passing is more pitiable than the film depicts. In the film, Elvis is seen in his mother’s closet, sobbing and clutching her clothes. In truth, Elvis was noted to have been sitting with his mom’s open casket, greeting people. As one guest described it, it was like they were hosting a party together. Afterward, he wouldn’t leave his mother’s body for three days.

As to Presley’s dad, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), a friend of mine once asked me where Vernon was in the 1970s when his son’s mental state went into steep decline and a pill addiction kicked in. I drew a blank—except to say he was an emotionally absent sort of dad. Luhrmann (and Roxburgh) captured this well, with Vernon barely there and almost literally fading out of the film.