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Ever since his twin brother's premature infantile death, the young Elvis has evolved into a serious artist through and through, dreaming of leaving his native Memphis behind and moving out into the wider world. In the 1950s, his music career began and was to go through unbelievable heights, but also through abysmal lows until his death on August 16, 1977. The Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, who is known for his iconic and fast-cut features such as Moulin Rouge or Romeo and Juliet, took the monumental task on his shoulders to film the life of the King of Rock´n´Roll.
A long overdue biopic, since the influence of Elvis continues to this day and his life provides much material for interesting narratives. The trailers already indicate that this is a rock´n´roll phantasmagoria. Is Elvis a celebration of a unique musician or a cynical deconstruction of a dazzling but equally controversial figure in music history? If you continue reading, you will find the answer and more in the following paragraphs!
The problem of every biopic is to condense the life of an intriguing person in usually no more than two and a half hours and yield a decent end result. In the minefield of the biopic landscape, dozens of different forms emerge of how a particular life is taken up and interpreted. For example, there is the so-called Trojan Horse biopic, which only superficially deals with the subject as its focus, only to end up on a completely different topic, which, for example, tries to penetrate a larger social problem with the help of a familiar face. Elvis would do well to do so, because until 2022 there was no reasonable cinematic discussion with the megastar, his tumultuous life offering the possibility to set the stage for all those who were overshadowed by the King of Rock´n´Roll.
But Elvis is by no means a biopic of the brand Trojan Horse, because the final focus of the film is the musical outcast, who accepted and repurposed the sounds of the segregated black population, which he admired wholeheartedly, to unleash a musical and cultural revolution that would prematurely cost him his life. As mentioned above, biopics are tremendously treacherous, because there are simply too many striking events that define a person. The most profound desires and motivations of historical people can never be fully explored.
With the means of film art, a life is initially adapted to a certain degree, so the biographical framework is established. Distillation follows, because the filmmakers must decide whether and how much material is omitted to keep the audience´s interest for its runtime, in Elvis´ case about 160 minutes. The last point of a cinematic biopic's approach is the distortion that irrevocably occurs because a biography, neither written nor audiovisual, can be entirely accurate, because even personal memories lose their effectiveness over time.
In general, Elvis clearly demonstrates the tragedy of the superstar, in Elvis Aaron Presley´s case the megastar, and serves as a reminder of naive assumptions about the show business, which too often lead to personal ruin. The story is surprisingly told by Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's enigmatic and dubious manager, and right at the beginning the colonel laments that he is responsible for the megastar and that the world should be grateful to him for creating him. One thing the world can be grateful for is the invention of merchandise due to Colonel Tom Parker.
This almost diabolical character is played by Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood's greatest acting stars, who for the first time in his long career plays a morally ambivalent character in Elvis. The word "villain" is omitted because he is not intrinsically evil, but merely a symptom of a pathological system that produces and brings down stars, as in the case of Elvis.
The film moves at an insane pace through the most important cornerstones of Elvis Presley's life, and the two and a half hours never drag, too overwhelming is the pace of the editing and the sheer flood of images, which sets an opulent monument to the King of Rock'n'Roll.
The titular role in Elvis is played by Austin Butler, who will clearly draw attention to himself at the upcoming Oscar awards with his performance and was previously only featured in the already cancelled fantasy series "The Shannara Chronicles" and in a small role in Tarantino´s "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood". This rather blank slate of an actor does serve Elvis tremendously well for immersion`s sake, because it is provided with a fresh face and thus ensures more acceptance of this person being the character. During the film, casual fans of Elvis Presley will be brought closer to the tragedy of the megastar, who was driven by naive dreams, and ended up spending his adult life as a prisoner of his own dream.
What many people do not know is that Elvis Aaron Presley did not cross the borders of the United States once as the persona of the king. Elvis clearly distorts the time in the army stationed in Germany, because on the one hand it is true that Elvis Presley was ordered overseas for 2 years to escape the watchful eyes of the US - moral committee, but he met and loved his future wife Priscilla already at the age of 14; in the finished film she is depicted as a young adult. As a private individual, the King left the US, but as a showman he was barred from leaving until his death in 1977.
At the end of the day, an average man from Memphis was another victim in a culture of exploitation, who, with the help of his talent, reshaped the dance and music culture of an oppressed minority, unleashed a generation of young people and established rock and roll as one of the most iconic and durable popular music genres.
In addition to the dazzling focus on the tragic protagonist in Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann reveals some deeper social rifts that continue to gape openly to this day, but they are being pushed into the background. Nevertheless, the foreground cannot exist without the background, everything is interrelated. Presley has always been held back by his manager from his total potential, but Colonel Parker is acting only on the will of a cold, emotionless system, the music industry.
In the film, it becomes obvious that the colonel is not an American by birth but has an accent that is not entirely distinguishable. In fact, he was a native of the Netherlands and was born as Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk. After apparently collaborating with the Nazis, he settled in the US to benefit from the capitalist system. He is also credited with inventing merchandise, which is given a bitter aftertaste knowing of his past. As well as the personal story of Elvis.
Baz Luhrmann's film is not too concerned with a legitimate critique of the King of Rock´n´Roll but he isn´t telling a fairy tale about the world of that time, either. The flood of images alone is worth the price of admission, yet some interesting topics are touched upon in the subtext, such as the culture of exploitation from which Elvis originates. At the end of the day, Mr. Presley was not a shining hero, but a deeply broken and desperate man who fell into the trap of a machine and was swallowed up by his own dream. He also unwittingly delivered the black population, which should have been treated equally and equally since the beginning of the United States, owing to Elvis's popularity, which was shaped by its original sounds, to that very system. A cinematic sensual overload, which celebrates rock´n´roll and can at the same time be considered a warning not to blindly follow one´s own dreams.
If your dream has something to do with music, please pursue it. Only with the certain caution that is necessary. Here on mukken.com you will find all categories related to music. From features about bands and artists to reports about books and films with music as the central theme. Instrument tutorials and other coaching articles can also be found on this blog. If you liked this article about the biopic Elvis, then please keep checking it out here on mukken.com. For example, there's a feature about the extravagant life of Anthony Kiedis, frontman of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or one about the shocking punk rocker GG Allin. There is even more Elvis content in this post. Check it out, it's worth it!
Originally published on February 6, 2023, updated on February 13, 2023
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