When Elvis Presley died in 1977, Lester Bangs argued his death marked the end of consensus in American culture.
“We will continue to fragment,” predicted the critic, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2000 movie Almost Famous. “Along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence.”
In other words: You’ll see the world your way, and I’ll see it mine. Don’t even try to convince me otherwise.
“We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” Bangs, who died in 1982, wrote in the Village Voice. “So I wo n’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse of him. I will say goodbye to you.”
Forty-five years later, America is a divided place all right, and not least about the gyrating singer from Tupelo, Miss., who is the subject of ElvisBaz Luhrmann’s new fever dream of a movie starring Austin Butler as the man who would be King and Tom Hanks as his brilliant carny barker manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Elviswhich also features Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as BB King, Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton, and Alton Mason as Little Richard, arrives in theaters on Friday with a tall task at hand.
It aims to reel in moviegoers by reimagining a rags-to-riches story that’s calcified into caricature.
It’s Elvis as the dirt-poor Southern white boy in thrall of rhythm & blues, country, and gospel music who’s the answer to the prayers of Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder.
Elvis turns into a hip-swiveling sensation who shakes up 1950s America before spending the 1960s making inane Hollywood movies and winding up a jumpsuit-encased carcass, lost in Las Vegas purgatory.
The movie portrays its title character as the hero of an American tragedy. He’s caught in the trap by the conniving Colonel, whose real name was Andreas van Kuijk and who was born in the Netherlands — not West Virginia as he claimed. Hanks relishes not being the good guy for once, playing Parker with a prosthetic nose, swollen belly, and a Dutch accent.
Butler as Elvis is as good as one could hope for in an impossible role. He has the otherworldly beauty in early scenes as the charismatic figure who Bruce Springsteen called “a human Adonis,” and he’s a hunka hunk of burning love during the career-saving TV performance known as The ’68 Comeback Special.
He also acquires gravitas in the lonely-at-the-top scenes in the movie, which feels as long as its 2 hours 39 minutes as it moves toward its sorry conclusion. And he acquits himself adequately vocally, doing his own singing in early scenes and having his voice digitally mixed in with the real-life mature Elvis.
But any hopes of rendering Elvis Presley truly relevant in 2022 would mean doing far more than telling a seen-it-all before story with smart casting and the trademark razzle-dazzle that’s marked previous Lurhmann confections like Moulin Rouge.
It would mean confronting race, and allegations that Presley is offender number one when it comes to the cultural crime of reaping the rewards of white privilege to become rich and famous while worthy Black artists never received credit due or monetary compensation.
It’s dubious whether the consensus that Lester Bangs wrote about in Presley’s obituary ever actually existed. Were “we” really in agreement about Presley in 1977? But Bangs was prescient in seeing how cultural consumers would build their tribal identities, gathering with like-minded true believers, whether to follow Fox News or MSNBC, or to stan pop stars like Beyoncé or Morgan Wallen.
And one of the most divisive figures, of course, is Elvis himself. Presley remains the biggest-selling solo artist of all time. With 700,000 annual visitors, Graceland is the second-biggest private home tourist attraction in the United States, second only to the White House.
And speaking of that residence (where Elvis famously surprised Richard Nixon with a visit in 1970) — Donald Trump, posthumously awarded Presley the Medal of Freedom there in 2018.
But while Elvis still has millions of fans, he’s been discredited by pop culture public opinion. For that, thank the brilliant 1989 single “Fight the Power,” in which Chuck D of Public Enemy, along with Flavor Flav, struck a blow against dominant white culture by rapping while wearing a Phillies cap: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s— to me / Straight up racist, that sucker was simple and plain, motherf— him and John Wayne.”
In Eugene Jarecki’s 2017 documentary king, Chuck D absolves Presley of the sin of appropriation. “Culture is culture,” he says. “Culture is meant to be shared.” But he takes exception to Elvis being dubbed “the King,” a crown that could have deservedly sat on the head of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Presley’s relationship with Black music was anything but simple and plain. He revered bluesmen such as BB King, and as a boy he snuck into Black churches to hear gospel music.
“That’s Alright (Mama),” the song that set his career ablaze, was a cover of bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, played in Elvis by Gary Clark Jr. But it was a thrilling reinterpretation, not a carbon copy. And the song’s flip side, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” conjured rock and roll from a Bill Monroe bluegrass tune. He told Phillips’ assistant Marion Keisker when he first showed up at Sun: “I sing all kinds.”
James Brown said Presley “taught America to get down.” Little Richard made it a point to refer to himself as “the architect” and “inventor” of rock and roll, but he also called Elvis “a blessing. They wouldn’t let Black music through. He opened the door.”
That idea that Presley did the world a service is echoed in The Searcher, the 2018 HBO documentary, in which Bruce Springsteen says: “Elvis’ music pointed to Black culture and said: ‘This is something that is filled with the force of life. … If you want to be an American, this is something you need to pay attention to.’ ”
That notion of Elvis as a liberator — or even accidental revolutionary — runs through one of my favorite songs but Elvis (of which there are many): “Baby Boom Che,” by Native American poet and activist John Trudell. “He showed [us] there’s something good in feeling good, … to be sensual is really OK” Trudell spoke-sang. “He was America’s baby boom Che.”
Little good did that do for the Black artists Presley drew from, counters CNN commentator Van Jones in king. “My father was born in Memphis in 1944, and there’s probably nobody he hated more than Elvis Presley,” he says. “It’s very hard to express sometimes the frustration that Black people feel having given so much to the culture, and that value, which really helps define America, benefiting others.”
Elvis Mainly functions as splashy entertainment but does touch on topics of racial privilege, gingerly. Colonel Parker’s eyes light up with dollar signs when he realizes the voice he’s hearing belongs to a white man. When Presley is being threatened by censors who fear America’s youth is being corrupted, he seeks to reconnect with his authentic self, by heading to Beale Street in Memphis to hang out with his friend King.
After taking in dazzling performances by Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Elvis tells King that the Colonel has warned him that if he doesn’t tone down his act, he will wind up in jail.
The bluesman laughs at the naivety of his friend, explaining that the risks Elvis takes hardly compare to the dangers King regularly faces as a Black man living in the segregated South. King and the King may have been great pals, brothers in spirit whose lives in the Home of the Blues were lit up by the same music. But really, they lived in different worlds.