Back in the building, ‘Elvis’ the movie


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Article by Off the Shelf Correspondent Michael Todd Steffen

Just a “hey there” to moviegoers considering Elvis, Baz Luhrman’s biopic of iconic rock legend Elvis Presley. If you’re scrunching your nose and thinking naw, this is just about a flashy rhinestone Vegas entertainer – think again.

The movie starring Austin Butler (as Elvis Presley) and Tom Hanks (as Presley’s notorious manager Colonel Parker) plumbs unexpected depths of social feeling (rather than commentary) about the racial strife America so bitterly suffered in the time of Presley’s stardom (1956-1977), beginning with Elvis’s thorough embodiment as a white entertainer of the American South’s black music culture from his childhood around black blues dives and black tent spiritual revivals in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Luhrman’s carefully sifted and sequenced film makes a startling documentation of the origins of Presley’s meteoric rise to the nation’s attention with his controversial early television appearances, emanating a mix of hillbilly country and negro blues while swinging and gyrating his hips and shaking his legs and shoulders in an unprecedented sexual choreography that made young women scream uncontrollably and drew intense opprobrium from white, especially the deep South white conservatives – all the way to a Congressional committee formed to censor his performances for indecency. The complaint precisely was that the white boy was exhibiting black behavior.

Other than portraying the Congressmen’s complaints and efforts against the performer, the movie maintains a rigorous political silence, in terms of language, while Luhrman lucidly follows and puts out on display the young entertainer’s fierce rebellion against any censorship of his music or physical expression from television producers, his bumbling business-savvy manager Colonel Parker (a brilliant performance by Tom Hanks), or even the police.

This was his act, sure, and Colonel Parker’s shallow money-raking philosophy about show business and show business are repeated as a leitmotif throughout the film. Yet the portrayal of Presley also drives home that this embodied union of white and black America was deeply who Elvis Presley was and its life and expression through him and the wild enthusiasm and love it engendered in American popular culture was an electrifying and amalgamating force from the soles our shoes through our hearts into the tingling of our brains.

This music overrode the intellectual, political hatred which manifested themselves terribly in the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, events the movie quietly pauses to observe and digest in a dramatic sequence of the film where the singer undergoes a transformation from rebellion to simple and powerful affirmation of faith in his performance of the spine-chilling anthem If I Can Dream, sung on a Christmastime TV special culminating the crisis year in December ’68. The song’s repetition of the word dream resonates poignantly with the I have a dream speech of Martin Luther King Jr. (Elvis was also known as The King) who was slain by gunshots at a motel in Memphis less than 10 miles away from Presley’s Graceland mansion.

Meanwhile throughout the movie Luhrman brings plenty of mother love, charm and excitement to entertain us with the mesmerizing spectacle Elvis Presley made for America. The film reveals both the exhilarating wild fun of Elvis’s personality and fame and the deep dark side of the driven exhaustion, frustration and bitter anger his dedication to that inspiration brought into his life, not innocent of his manager’s addictive greed to draw all he could from the megastar.

Besides making its own subtly, deeply felt statements on our contemporary crises with gun violence, the conflict between language and expression propriety and censorship, government, the young generation’s driven rebellion to be heard, the slippery dangers of fame, our ongoing racial conflicts, sexual exhibition and addiction, Elvis the film entertains us with the light and charm of an exalted icon of Rock ’n’ Roll and American culture as it celebrates Presley’s magnanimous talent, gift and generosity to our spirit and our lives.



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