Baz Luhrmannn’s “Elvis” is a bloated, glitzy, behind-the-music biopic that makes no pretense about pandering. Practically the first thing it tells you, in various ways, is that it’s a carny attraction meant to entertain. And entertain it does, with camera zooms and quick cuts, split screens and, of course, impassioned musical performances. Even at 2 hours, 40 minutes, it’s a hoot.
Americans love inauthentic but fun excess. But they also love authenticity — or at least they say they do.
Americans love inauthentic but fun excess. But they also love authenticity — or at least they say they do. Luhrmann, like Elvis before him, puts race at the center of his performance. By doing so, he hopes to guarantee truth and sincerity amidst the camp and glam. But inevitably, the director puts his fingers on the scale, and ends up telling a story about Elvis’ history which subtly sidelines Black music even while purportedly centering it.
In Luhrmann’s telling, Elvis (a very pouty Austin Butler) grows up poor in an integrated neighborhood in Tupelo. There he’s introduced to earthy blues music by performers like Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark, Jr.) and the sanctified shout of Black worship. When he becomes a singer himself, he mixes Black music and Black dance influences with white country, coming up with a new hybrid style which scandalizes fuddy duddy, implicitly racist singers like Hank Snow (David Wehnam) and tantalizes women and younger men like Hanks’ son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-Mcphee).
Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, mugging for an Oscar) is initially attracted by the commercial potential of Elvis’ Black-derived innovation. But hoping for mainstream success, he tries to stop Elvis’ hip-wriggling and get him singing Christmas songs instead of blues. Elvis’ slow descent into drug use and irrelevance is framed as selling out his true self at Parker’s manipulative behest.
Elvis is framed as a unique conduit of Black music into the mainstream. That uniqueness is also what’s at stake in his life and career; Elvis’s relationship to the blues and gospel is important because it’s his soul.
This is a common way to tell Elvis’ story. For that matter, the white artist channeling a Black essence is a trope across popular music, from Bing Crosby to Eric Clapton to Eminem. But it’s mostly a “snow job” as Colonel Parker says of his own razzle-dazzle.
In the first place, Elvis was absolutely not unique among white artists in listening to and taking inspiration from Black sources. White and Black musicians had been exchanging sounds and ideas since at least the dawn of recorded music in the U.S.
Jimmie Rodgers — the singer for whom Hank Snow named his son — famously performed in a country blues style. He even broke racial barriers in the 1920s and recorded with Black musicians like Louis Armstrong and Charles Gibson. His yodeling delivery was beloved by many Black blues singers — including B.B. King, who has a bit part in the film as one of Elvis’ inspirations.
Elvis was absolutely not unique among white artists in listening to and taking inspiration from Black sources.
Nor was Elvis the first white singer to find success with music associated with Black performance. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was released in May 1954, two months before Elvis’ big first hit “That’s All Right, Mama.” Though it’s generally cited as an early rock record, it could also be seen as a late entry in Hillbilly Boogie, a style based on the rhythms of Black boogie woogie piano music.
Hillbilly Boogie was a major force on the country charts in the '40s and early '50s. Hank Snow recorded many Hillbilly Boogie tunes, including his chugging, jittery, proto-rockabilly 1950 mega-hit “I’m Movin’ On.” (Luhrmann has Snow perform a bunch of staid country ballads; no hillbilly boogie allowed.)
In context, Elvis wasn’t a white man with a singular connection to Black music. Rather, he was part of a tradition of stylistically integrated rural artists.
The difference wasn’t in kind. It was in degree of success. Thanks to improved communication technology and a boom in mass culture that gave young people more discretionary spending, Elvis found himself at the center of a pop music mania unseen before in intensity and scope.
So Elvis’ stunning popularity was in part due to talent; he was a wonderfully gifted performer. It was in part due to luck; he happened to be in the right place at the right time. And he also happened to be white.
The movie acknowledges this a couple of times. When Little Richard (Alton Mason) performs “Tutti Frutti,” someone comments that Elvis could record it and make more money. But the material dynamics of race are generally sidelined in favor of supposedly spiritual ones. The movie doesn’t want to talk about the advantages Elvis gets from his (physical) whiteness. It wants instead to talk about his tragic struggle to be true to his (spiritual) Blackness.
This winking shell game with Elvis’ race isn’t an accident. Because, yes, Elvis was wonderful, but if you wanted to make a movie about race and rock 'n' roll, is he really the guy to focus on? Why are we watching a movie about this white guy’s Blackness when you could instead make a movie about an actual Black person— B.B. King, Little Richard, Arthur Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
The answer is that we’re watching a movie about Elvis because he was really, really popular. And he was really, really popular because he was white.
The film presents Blackness as a quality divorced from Black people— an essential realness which makes Elvis and his listeners and moviegoers happy and sexy and true. When he fails that Blackness, we’re supposed to believe, he fails himself.
But the real problem isn’t dressing in a suit, or refusing to wiggle your hips, or singing corny Christmas songs. The real problem is a society which elevates singers — even very talented singers — over their also very talented peers because of the color of their skin. That’s a snow job that is, unfortunately, as American as an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas.