All the way from Australia, Elvis surfs in on a wave of audacity, which will surprise no one familiar with the movies of writer-director Baz Luhrmann. Elvis Presley was the most mythic self-made American since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic antihero Jay Gatsby, the subject of Luhrmann’s last movie, except Presley was real: a Southern high school weirdo in eyeliner and bolero pants turned truck driver turned musical messiah who did nothing much but change the world. Only the Beatles a decade later would exceed Presley’s impact, unifying and transforming a generation and Western culture.
In the seven decades since Presley first hit, his reputation has survived its original controversies only to court new ones about the way he mashed up Black church hymns and white-trash honky-tonk, Tin Pan Alley and backstreet ballads. What Presley, more than anyone, made clear was how much everyone around the world loves American music however they otherwise feel about America.
Music and movies have had a relationship characterized by mutual envy ever since Presley, who wanted nothing more than to be a movie star, made movie stars want to become rock stars. The musical biopic has been gathering steam lately; music has been called the purest art form because it makes the greatest emotional impact in the most mysterious of ways, and audiences are enthralled by backstage stories of their favorite singers. Off the top of your head, name five biopics about movie stars, assuming you can think of one. Now name ten about musicians, assuming you can stop at ten.
Love it or hate it, Elvis is unlike any other movie you’ll see this summer, or this year, or maybe this decade.
Actors find these roles irresistible, often giving performances so routinely stellar as to be taken for granted, such as Jennifer Hudson’s Aretha Franklin (Respect), Taron Egerton’s Elton John (Rocketman), Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash (Walk the Line), and Chadwick Boseman’s superb James Brown (Get on Up). Way back in the ’70s, Diana Ross got an Oscar nomination for her film debut as the great Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, only for Andra Day to bring matters full circle half a century later with her nominated performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Holiday is an exemplar of what attracts Hollywood-—the wracked pain of her singing tapped into the same tragedy and drama that became the stuff of the movies about her. Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Édith Piaf, and Judy Garland all led lives tumultuous enough to win Oscars for Sissy Spacek, Jamie Foxx, Marion Cotillard, and Renée Zellweger, respectively, with Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody being most impressive in sharp contrast with how slipshod the movie actually was.
Sometimes a musician’s persona is either so elusive or indelible that the movies don’t know how to capture it. Despite several attempts, nobody has cracked the chameleonic David Bowie, and Timothée Chalamet’s Bob Dylan vehicle is mired in development. Martin Scorsese finally abandoned his labor of love, Sinatra, which, given rumors of John Travolta in the lead, may have been just as well. Nobody ever was more indelible than Presley, a problem Luhrmann has solved in Elvis by making the singer the third-most important character in the film. The second is Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks in the strangest performance he’s given, less a portrayal than an interpretation that’s equal parts oracle, fraud, psychotic carny barker, and dabbler in the dark arts.
Of course, the most important character in Luhrmann’s movie is Baz Luhrmann. As with The Great Gatsby, in which the director managed the unlikely task of being true to both his own vision and Fitzgerald’s, Elvis makes the most sense if you watch it as a spectacular fever dream that imagines Luhrmann as the King of Rock and Roll in the form of Austin Butler, cast in the part over higher-profile competition from West Side Story’s Ansel Elgort and Whiplash’s Miles Teller. Luhrmann makes us deal with Presley not on Presley’s terms but on Luhrmann’s, and he may be the only filmmaker who could do that. Love it or hate it, Elvis isn’t like any other movie you’ll see this summer or this year or maybe this decade: the biopic to end all biopics, as Presley himself was the musical star to end all stars.
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Los Angeles.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.