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In 'Elvis,' an icon remains an icon, and little else

Austin Butler as Elvis.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Austin Butler as Elvis.

The conundrum facing every biopic about an extremely famous person – the kind of person who truly represents that now overused and diluted term "icon" – is in teasing the human out from underneath all that iconography. Beyond nailing the "look" or "sound," however one might interpret it, does this figure who's been referenced, impersonated, and memed ad nauseum feel like a real person again? Does the exercise result in a better understanding and/or appreciation of their work and what made them iconic in the first place?

A lot of biopics have trouble solving this conundrum. And few, if any, can fully avoid falling into hagiography, which is probably the most common trapping of the genre. Elvis, director and co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann's dizzyingly absurd take on the life of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), doesn't just fail at making the so-called King of Rock and Roll into a three-dimensional human being; it actively plunges him further into the recesses of memedom, while making his legacy out to be far less interesting than it actually is.

Tom Hanks, and a bizarre Euro-ish accent rivaling the cast of House of Gucci, star as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's longtime manager who turned out to be little more than a huckster with a shady past. "The Colonel," as he's known, is both our narrator and nefarious villain who ruthlessly exploits Elvis, though he refuses to see himself as such. In the film's whirlwind of an opening sequence, the aging and ill Colonel insists it's not true he's responsible for the superstar's premature demise at the age of 42: "I made Elvis Presley." He may as well be twirling a wiry handlebar mustache.

From there, Elvis is primarily interested in returning to one loaded and mighty dull question: What, or who, really killed Presley?

'Elvis' is primarily interested in returning to one loaded and mighty dull question: What, or who, really killed Presley?

To "answer" this, of course, we've got to go back to the beginning, and hit as many of the key points in Presley's history as possible – his early exposure to Black blues and gospel as a boy growing up in Mississippi and Tennessee; his stratospheric rise as a rock and roll sex symbol; the death of his beloved mother Gladys (Helen Thomson); his legendary 1968 TV special, his first of several comebacks; the drug addiction, and so on. In typical Luhrmann fashion, Elvis cycles through almost all of these events and others at breakneck pace, relying upon turbulent split-screen laden montages and the Colonel's signposting voiceover to do most of the heavy lifting in the storytelling department. If you've seen the movie's trailer, imagine all those elisions and quick cuts and dramatic flourishes, but over the course of a nearly three-hour runtime.

This approach can make for some raucous, energetic sequences powered by Butler's dynamic recreations of the performances – the hips wiggle with ease, and according to Luhrmann, it's mostly Butler himself singing those vocals. When he's offstage and the pressures of reality take over, however, the character of Elvis gets lost in the aesthetic cacophony or bogged down by clunky attempts to turn him into a tragic, uncomplicated hero at the mercy of a menacing manager. For one, his relationship and eventual marriage to Priscilla Presley is sanded down to ignore the fact that she was 14 years old –10 years his junior – when they first met.

Elvis also tentatively flirts with his place at the intersection of politics, casting him in familiar light as a rebel whose gyrations and interpretations of "Negro music" incensed white parents and lawmakers, while being sure to note how sad he was about the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Yet curiously, Luhrmann couldn't find room – in a nearly three-hour movie! Did I mention this already? – to fold in that infamous meeting with President Nixon in 1970, where Presley, by then an elder statesman by pop music standards, railed against hippies and drug culture, which could have been an interesting dramatic contrast to explore.

Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann's new <em>Elvis</em>.
/ Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann's new Elvis.

More frustrating, though, is how Elvis treats its subject's relationship to Black music and culture. Luhrmann and his co-writers know it's a facet that can't be ignored, but what is clearly intended to serve as tribute to Presley's Black predecessors and contemporaries plays out instead as lip service. Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey), B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Little Richard (Alton Mason) all pop up here and there in bit parts to draw out the lineage and demonstrate how Presley was embraced by Black communities in his early years. But if a viewer goes into this movie knowing little to nothing about Presley, they'll come away believing it was as simple as that, because the film consciously avoids the more fraught legacy he's had as the white "king" of a genre rooted in Black tradition.

There's no mention of the widespread rumor that he once said "the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes," a rumor that persisted for decades and no doubt helped cement him as little more than a cultural appropriator in the eyes of many. Concrete evidence of this failed to materialize, and it was shot down by Presley himself in an interview with the Black magazine Jet, where he added that "rock and roll was here a long time before I came along. No one can sing that kind of music like colored people." But excising any criticisms or apprehensions from Black artists in the script ultimately does a disservice to him and the inherent nuances in how his art has been received.

Excising any criticisms or apprehensions from Black artists in the script ultimately does a disservice to [Elvis] and the inherent nuances in how his art has been received.

As tedious and surface-level as this whole exercise is, it's not boring. Big time Luhrmann fans and Presley fans alike will find enough to latch on to here; it's a movie brimming with nostalgia and admiration for its subject, complete with a Moulin Rouge-like mashing up of classic songs from the catalog with new interpolations by modern artists like Doja Cat and Diplo. (I'd argue that's more effective in Moulin Rouge and Luhrmann's ambitious series about the birth of hip-hop, The Get Down, where the characters have more time to develop in the midst of the vibrant, showy production.)

Yet by the end, a gaudy gloss remains coated upon the man, myth, and legend, Elvis. The movie's answer for what killed Presley, metaphorically speaking, will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever watched a biopic about a pop star. The zany excesses of Elvis just aren't enough to cover over the paint-by-numbers idolatry.

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Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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