The Elvis phenomenon came out of
nowhere. False and with omissions.
While I enjoyed Elvis and appreciate the enormous challenges Luhrmann faced, my most serious problem with the film is there is so little mention of the crucial social context of Elvis’ entire story. US citizens’ emotional, psychological, and racial state in the 1950s was utterly unique. Recognizing this is important for several reasons, especially to understand how issues of race play out in real life in America, along with unintended consequences. Missing this aspect of the Elvis legacy feels like a lost opportunity.
In short, in the 1950s US, a fast-paced modern society with increasing mass conformity and not to mention the threat of nuclear annihilation, all but set the table for a rock ‘n’ roll explosion. In fact, in 1954, before Elvis became a star, President Dwight W. Eisenhower acknowledged in his State of the Union Address “how far the advances of science have outraced our social consciousness, how much more we have developed scientifically than we are capable of handling emotionally and intellectually.” (Cosby, 2016) That is—and despite the cries of the establishment at the time—society had serious problems before rock and roll blew up; rock music was effectively a solution.
In the early and mid-’50s, an American teenager culture had formed for the first time. White movie rebels in the forms of Marlon Brando and James Dean (there is a de minimis reference to Dean in Elvis) both became icons and huge role models for Elvis and millions of others. On the big screen, young, white rebels were already harassing white shopkeepers, white police, and white parents, and the mainstream embraced them before Elvis. It cannot be overstated how telling this is, and how it all impacted Elvis’ attitude and confidence towards his music and career.
Musically, to make a long story short, R&B and jump blues with the “big beat”, as well as identifiable rock ‘n’ roll songs, had all already been recorded, as well, and white kids were already catching on. Further, pre-Elvis, Black-run WIDA radio, Sun Records, and white Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips were enormously influential in helping to cross Black music into the white mainstream and creating a special musical melting pot in Memphis when Elvis came along. Yet, disappointingly, WDIA gets a brief mention, Sun gets maybe a minute or two of screen time, and Dewey Phillips is absent entirely.
These happenings were far, far bigger than Elvis.
Elvis and rioting. Somewhat accurate, but still overblown and thus problematic.
In Elvis, and at the start of his career, Presley performs a pivotal concert under the watch of angry police, while, elsewhere, racist government officials decry the young star. This is accurate in that Elvis directly represented integration, as well as unbridled sexual and emotional freedom. The establishment thus saw him as a serious threat to societal order.
The concert then sees Presley breaking the rules in place for him, and he unleashes his thrilling and sexual moves. This leads to what Luhrmann makes to look like quite a violent—not a riot—but a commotion, I guess you would call it, as people try to rush the stage and police step in. A backing band member randomly and unintentionally comically topples off the stage, suggesting some sort of violence. The impression is that Presley has put himself in physical harm’s way, like a civil rights warrior. He is whisked away by police.
Luhrmann uses the scene to symbolically embody the chaos and danger surrounding Presley at the time. But while Elvis was a bona fide rebel, he did not start a literal riot at a concert, and there was no direct threat of physical harm to him. Elvis was a civil rights figure, but that needs to be kept in perspective, especially with so much hype surrounding his legacy. To show Elvis as putting life and limb at risk is misleading and even a bit offensive once one considers some of the true sacrifices made in the civil rights struggle, i.e., Emmet Till, those attacked with fire hoses and police dogs, Metzger Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on.
Underage Priscilla? Intentionally muddled and very misleading.
Elvis shows Elvis in the Army in Germany when he was 23. There, he meets his future bride, Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of an Air Force officer. In the film, Priscilla is described as a “teen” when they met. Whoaaa, there, Baz. I mean, that is an accurate statement. But, to be much more accurate, she was not nine-teen. Or eight-teen. She was thir-teen.
Priscilla has always insisted that she and Elvis did not have sexual intercourse until marriage when she was 21. However, from the start, she has also acknowledged having sexual relations with Elvis—just short of intercourse. At the very least, Presley engaged in illicit sexual behavior with the minor Pricilla. Further, he used his age, experience, and status to, as he had explicitly acknowledged to people, mold and even groom her to fit his wants and needs.
Also, Priscilla has nothing but kind words for Elvis today.
While not excusing any of the above, context is still necessary. Presley came out of the deep, rural South in a different era. Men marrying young teenage girls was not out of the ordinary. As a prime example, another rock ‘n’ roll superstar at Sun Records at that time, Jerry Lee Lewis, was completely “canceled” in 1958 when it was discovered that the then-22-year-old had married not only his cousin but that she, too, was only 13years old. In fact, in rural Louisiana, where Lewis was from, his older sisters had been married at 11 and 14.
Also, into the 1970s, even some of the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll stars, including members of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith, to name just a few, engaged in much the same behavior with far-underaged girlfriends, though they saw little-to-no repercussions.
The Colonel’s control. Much of this is accurate, but it’s distorted.
It is well known that Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), horribly manipulated his client throughout their two decades together, making all sorts of shortsighted deals and even taking a whopping 50 percent of Elvis’ earnings. Luhrmann questionably chose to have Parker narrate the film. This not only alters the film’s entire narrative but it makes Parker nearly as big of a character as Elvis. This also precludes so many other more fruitful directions that could have been taken. (And Tom Hanks’ grotesque facial prosthetics are a pure distraction.) Buhrmann seems to overstate matters to the point that Parker receives almost all of the blame for Presley’s life problems, while Elvis seems to have had zero agency in his own life. Neither rings completely true.
Elvis was in a tough spot with Parker from the beginning. He was young and naïve, and Parker, as well established in the film, was a slick and even fraudulent huckster. But Elvis chose to stay with Parker over some 20 years of his life and career until Presley’s death in 1977, understood to be a result of his drug addiction. For years, Elvis fell for some absurd lies and quite blatant mismanagement by Parker. At any point along the line, Elvis would have had access to any manager or attorney he could ever want to consult about extricating his interests from Parker’s, including buyouts, claims of outright fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and so on. Indeed, when Elvis died, Elvis Presley Enterprises used the courts to do exactly that.
This narrative of Presley as almost entirely helpless doesn’t make sense, and how the blame was allocated in the film doesn’t make sense. We see the boldest and brightest star and, suddenly, drugged-out milquetoast. While these extremes are a part of Elvis’ story, the film does not do much to reconcile or explain this sudden and extreme shift.
Jail or Army. There’s some truth to that, with symbolic and creative license, but it’s problematic.
Again, Elvis was the face of a “rock ‘n’ roll menace”, which both shocked and terrified the establishment. A New York Times columnist at the time, for example, even asked, “Is this generation going to hell?” Thus, it simply had to be a white rocker to be the first face of rock ‘n’ roll to ease a nation’s initial shock, generally speaking, and literally on network TV.
In a key scene in the film, Luhrmann distills Elvis’ situation down to a conversation between Elvis and B.B. King. Elvis asserts a direct and real threat of Presley being jailed—presumably for some charge of public indecency—which simply did not happen in real life. This precise conversation never took place either, but in the film, King tells Presley that Elvis will not be arrested because he is white and making too many people too much money. In contrast, King accurately states that some authorities would arrest a Black man literally for anything, including “walking across the street.”
In real life, Elvis upset some powerful people, but he wasn’t going to jail. Falsely representing this as a real threat crosses a line and, again, overstates the actual danger Presley was in and his implied heroism. Further, the film next uses this “threat” to suggest that Presley joined the Army because his only other option was jail, which is even further problematic.
Elvis also showed Parker controlling and manipulating Elvis’ military situation. In the end, in real life, a couple of things are clear. One, the military definitely would have given Elvis a cushy assignment performing for the troops if he wanted it. Two, what Elvis himself ultimately agreed to in real life was this. In 1958, few people, including Elvis himself, expected that the rock ‘n’ roll sensation would last much longer than any other pop culture trend, i.e., a couple of years. If Presley served his two years in the U.S. Army without special treatment, however, he would emerge as an accepted and now notably compliant and non-threatening, all-American boy. Thus, he would be set up for a long, safe career in mainstream music and film. That was Elvis’ choice, and it fit his long-held Hollywood dreams.
Elvis’ Civil Rights Record in the 1960s and ’70s. Some of this is true, but it’s vastly overstated. It also misses a crucial part of the Presley legacy.
The film’s narrative jumps across one of the most pivotal and volatile eras in U.S. history, including the civil rights struggle, from the end of the 1950s to 1968, and essentially only notes that Presley was in Hollywood making weak musicals. Yes, Presley is seen deeply saddened by the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, Presley is not otherwise shown as having much of any thoughts or opinions, whether publicly expressed or not, on Vietnam, “free love”, civil rights, or how he truly felt about the rock ‘n’ roll of the times, as well as how it felt to be on the outside of rock as its popularity and its social impact hit new heights.
There is not much doubt that Elvis’ heart was in the right place about the struggles of African Americans, but his efforts in support thereof are made out in the film to be far more important than they were. Race may have just been too big of an issue to touch for a man already becoming overwhelmed by his own life. Luhrmann shows Elvis explicitly excusing himself from having to do any more than singing about any important social or political issues without explaining why that should be.
The 1968 television special, noted as Elvis’ comeback to relevancy, was shot just a couple of months after King’s assassination. In the film, Elvis’ decision to include a single Black spiritual song (and in real life, there was a brief quoting of Martin Luther King, Jr.) is implied to be a decision of massive import. Luhrmann uses the TV show’s director’s speech to the crew to set Elvis up as “the voice that the world needs.” That was a nice sentiment, and the song selection showed Presley to be sympathetic to King’s assassination and Black Americans, but it was not much more than that. Also, given that Elvis did not do much else and was effectively silent offstage on any issues during the ’60s, and given everything else that happened in the world leading up to the tumultuous year of 1968, the effort was far from earthshattering.
Overall, Luhrmann’s effort is a welcome addition to the Elvis saga.
My overall impression of Luhrmann’s Elvis was that, for one thing, it is no doubt impossible to capture all of the above in a couple of hours of film. Still, Elvis is a welcome reassessment and a step forward in the ongoing saga of America, race, and Elvis’ legacy. It is largely entertaining and, at times, truly exciting. This stylized depiction of the breakout of rock ‘n’ roll itself, as well as a massive blow to segregation, can indeed induce chills. And the music is fantastic.
Still, after 60 years of discussion, articles, books, and films about the man, there is much more to be sorted out. We will likely never know any more about the inner life of Elvis Presley. However, we still have a ton more to learn from his legacy and what it tells us about America or, more accurately, how America created Elvis. But that is hopefully the next film or book.
Berrey, S. A. “Resistance begins at home: The Black Family and lessons in survival and subversion in Jim Crow Mississippi”. Black Women, Gender & Families, 3(1), 70. 2009.
Bertrand, Michael T. Race, Rock, and Elvis. University of Illinois Press. 2000.
Cosby, J. A. Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers, and Hillbillies: How America Gave Birth to Rock and Roll. McFarland & Company. 2016.