Almost half a century has passed since Elvis left the building, for good.
Australian author Baz Luhrmann just launched “Elvis,” his big, audacious nearly three-hour biopic, at Cannes and this bet from Warner Bros. seems to have paid off. The film begins its march to theaters with an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score, though that exuberant overall rating may mask some particularly spiteful and dismissive reviews from some of the world’s top critics. Soon the world of Elvis sidekicks and mildly curious new century film and music fans who know little beyond the name and lamé, will have their say.
Whatever its artistic qualities or flaws, “Elvis” already provides a powerful reminder of that edict of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “Print the Legend.” Ford’s rule applies to both the biographical rhapsody of (as in “Bohemian”) – and the examination/reporting – of depictions and lives of major historical figures, especially cultural legends like Presley .
Kindly Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson Speak clearly why Luhrmann’s “Elvis” may represent a particularly wasted opportunity for a major critical reassessment based on careful historical examination.
“Maybe the math was that everyone already knew all about Elvis, which certainly could have been true 30 years ago,” Lawson wrote in his review of the film. “Nowadays, however, his iconic status might need more argument.”
But Baz Luhrmann is only half the problem. The other half is the misrepresentation, mistaken recollections and/or random searches of journalists and critics writing about “Elvis”.
No name or shame, but take a look at the words of some of the best critics in the entertainment press.
“…Elvis remained a staple of the Las Vegas International Hotel from 1969 to 1976, performing sold-out show after show until just a year before his death. “Keeping Presley tied to Vegas was just one of the many machinations of his ruthlessly exploitative manager…”
It doesn’t match this account of this period of Elvis’ career, thanks to the easy searches Elvis Story Blog.
“There was a dark side, however, to Elvis’ reliance on live audiences. In 1976, at the age of 41, he worked tirelessly on the road—122 concerts in 74 cities. to one. And then, “in the first six months of 1977, he kept up the pace with 54 shows in 49 cities. That breakneck pace fueled his drug addiction and certainly contributed to his untimely death.”
Given that the movie seems to have followed the popular mythology of Presley’s longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker as half gargoyle, half Rasputin, all evil, it’s no surprise the critical community feels empowered to dismiss Parker as “a selfish trickster who monopolized the star’s artistic and personal freedom,” as one prominent reviewer summed it up.
No less an expert than acclaimed Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick applies the nuance missing in most reviews:
“Presley’s “totemic belief in the Colonel” was cemented while he was in the military, when his greatest fear was that time and distance would crush his career and destroy his popularity. Parker, the shrewd manager-merchandiser, promised that wouldn’t happen, and his tireless efforts to keep Presley’s name in front of American audiences as a box office star and recording artist convinced the singer that they were an unbeatable team.
Another reviewer praised “Elvis” for its portrayal of Elvis as a victim, “a portrait of a serious man trapped in an unserious life.”
Lost in the critical rush to crush the Colonel, Waylon Jennings, in his autobiography “Waylon,” wrote about the Elvis he knew. A sin actually knew.
“He hadn’t improved much since he was 18; he still looked like a little boy, in many ways. All he did was play, like a kid, and sing… A lot of people like to say he was secretly sad, but I don’t think so. If anything, I don’t believe he was deep enough inside. He had fun until the last minute. He loved being Elvis, the mystical bodyguard, and the girls screaming and being adored.
If there’s a lesson in this year’s Tupelo’s Finest Baz relief portrait, and the myriad murky historical revisitations of his legacy, it’s that great cultural figures can withstand anything that time (and Sydney) launches them.
And perhaps the misreadings and mutilated historical accounts only add to our appreciation of Elvis as a malleable mystical musical hero who, like Krishna, takes on the qualities of a supreme personality.
Either way, Elvis is still worth learning more about, especially the history as opposed to the hysteria, because his art is still worth listening to, and will remain so until as the latest Elvis impersonator hangs up his white sequin jumpsuit.