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Elvis review: The paradox of American myth-making

Baz Luhrmann’s gyrating biopic charts the life of the King from his gospel roots to the rise of the American teenager, and the hollowness at the heart of his gilded cage

When Baz Luhrmann, Hollywood’s most irrepressibly over-the-top director, turned his eye to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in 2013, it ought to have been the perfect fit. Who better after all to adapt the empty decadence of the Roaring Twenties than a man who built his career on the potency of a gilded image, on how solid gold idols can disguise nothing more than gold leaf and a rotten core.

Yet the resulting film aligned more with Jay Gatsby’s self-delusion than Fitzgerald’s prophetic, pre-Depression era vision. “They were careless people,” Fitzgerald warned of his characters; but Luhrmann’s film – its delicious design and starry-eyed ascription to the bruised romanticism of failed dreams – cared too much, believed too much in its own false god.

Luhrmann has always been a director obsessed by the thematic and narrative possibilities of aesthetic: sometimes it works, as with Romeo + Juliet, where sticky California heat and pimped-up guns become a cipher for unchecked desire and rage; sometimes, as with The Great Gatsby, the aesthetic takes over, layers of glitz painted so thick as to obscure the hollow centre beneath.

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Elvis, Luhrmann’s biopic of the king of rock’n’roll starring newcomer Austin Butler, trades in many of Fitzgerald’s concerns: the fragility of the American Dream, the mythology of wealth and glamour, the political possibility of image making. Yet unlike Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Elvis is fascinated not just by the visual potency of an image but by its aftershocks: the cultural legacies it carves out for both viewer and creator.

“The image is one thing and the human being another,” Elvis Presley once said. “It’s very hard to live up to an image.” Yet his life was largely steered by the former. His rise to fame was framed not just by the rise of the American teenager and its rebellious slicker aesthetic, but also by his deliberate intersection with Black culture in a time of brutal segregation, his wanton sexual magnetism in a time of intense female repression.

At two hours and 40 minutes, Elvis has all the bagginess of a by-the-book biopic, but it is in the moments where Luhrmann homes in on the political nature of Presley’s aesthetic persona that it finds its (gyrating) groove.

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Luhrmann’s patented chaotic filmmaking finally finds thematic resonance in the frantic response of the audience to Presley’s slightest hip wiggle. The camera swoops and swerves to his movements, focusing unashamedly, shamelessly, on both Butler’s crotch and the orgiastic frenzy created by such an image of sexual provocation in hyper-conservative postwar America. 

Elvis is in cinemas now

When an American governor accuses Presley’s dancing of spreading “Africanised culture”, meanwhile, the singer is faced with a choice. There is, as Luhrmann understands, radical potential in the creation of such visible counterculture, and certain safety too, depending on who is pushing the boundaries. “You a famous white boy,” BB King scoffs gently in the face of Presley’s fear of repercussion; recognising this, perhaps, Presley later steps onto the stage.

For Luhrmann, these moments signify who Presley really was: the liberated aesthetic sensibility he proffers a conduit to his true self. Yet unlike The Great Gatsby, which bought into its own aesthetic wonderland to a damning degree, Elvis is all too aware of the easy exploitation of such authenticity, of how an image, once validated by public consumption, can be manipulated and replicated and robbed of all its meaning.

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Overriding proceedings is Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s lifelong manager, whose emotional and financial abuse of the singer came to light after Presley’s death in 1977. If Luhrmann’s aesthetic sensibility has always tended towards camp, here it finds its ultimate – and dodgy – expression. Machiavellian and oddly played as it is, however, Hanks’ sycophantic string-pulling nevertheless crystallises the still all-too-relevant tension between artistic integrity and commercialisation.

“I’m trying to get back to who I really am,” Butler’s Presley says. Yet the more commercially viable he becomes, the more he is calcified into mere image: hair quiffed, bejewelled capes worn, tickets for shows he doesn’t want to play sold.

Elvis is not a perfect film, nor even an entirely successful one. Black characters are sidelined despite the film’s stress on racial politics, and Hanks is acting in a whole other circus.

Yet Luhrmann seems to have finally understood the paradox of American myth-making, the simultaneous power and vulnerability of culture crafted from image. It may not be possible, as Presley lamented, to fully expose the reality behind the image, but in revealing the processes behind such iconographic production, something tender and tragically human emerges.

Anahit Behrooz is a writer and editor.

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