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Written By: Diandra Reviews
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is an enamoring visual spectacle of a surprisingly sad story. Opening June 24, in theaters,the editing and music capture you to make Elvis Presley’s life look like a comic book series, of which his favorite was Captain Marvel. The cinematography of this film is dazzling, dizzying, and enrapturing and makes you feel the mythic life of a genuinely miserable man.
From the beginning, Luhrmann sets up Elvis (Austin Butler) as heavily influenced and surrounded by Black culture. While some believe he is a flagrant appropriator of Black music, Luhrman takes a different perspective. As MLK pointed out, there are intersections between the Black experience and poor, white Americans because poverty is a systemic weapon that, though purposefully used against communities of color, will always strike white people. With a criminal dad and an alcoholic mother, Elvis is raised in the poorest neighborhood, which is Black. He becomes an inadvertent bridge for two communities that, to this day, clash with the notion of unity being integral to equality.
With old radio stations being quoted, Elvis’ combination of “white country music” and “Black R&B” had both white and Black people hypnotized. For filmmakers and the Presley family, it was important to be clear of Elvis’s inspiration from Black artists, which at his time had white supremacists terrified, which, many politicians then, were happily and publicly so. They were desperate to erase his origins being born in Black music. As the newspapers splash across the screen and the voice-overs of government officials play, the fear of Elvis as some kind of “white, Black man” trying to “Blackify” white people leads him to get arrested.
Then, he was drafted into a war and swirled amidst a constant barrage of insecurity that he eventually quells — via drugs and guns. In becoming a surprising merger of segregated worlds, he became both a punching bag for societal resentment and supremacist rejection while being a living icon of adulating praise, admiration, and belief that, maybe, we all could truly live in hip-shaking harmony. In essence, he was either treated like a god or a savage. Either way, his humanity was completely torn from him, which is what people do to celebrities, historical symbols, and oppressed communities.
As I watched the film, I felt that was one man’s genuine appreciation of a culture he was raised in became a nation’s excuse to appropriate a community it was brazenly torturing. While politicians were hyper-aware that Elvis’s music was also founded on Black America, to his fans, he was simply the most original musician to ever live. Still, his uniqueness was as undeniable as his influences. It was that last part that endangered Elvis and made me wonder if appreciation turns into appropriation, automatically even if not intentionally, when money gets involved.
Elvis, seemingly, becomes rich overnight. While he brings his family, friends, and even Black artists, like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), along for the “fame ride,” it is the fact that he is so wealthy, as well as seen, that angers the racists in power. He not only bridged worlds, but he also opened a line of funding between them. Hence, for racism, money was the root of all evil.
Whether you are a saint or a sinner, the point is you are not human. You are simply a symbol from which other people dart and discuss their personal views of life and morality. That kind of depletion of control and self-image can break a heart and make it an open wound for others’ manipulation.
In a way, Elvis was used by his white manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), to fulfill a segregational, sick desire to enjoy Blackness without having to be with Black people. When I tell you that Hanks makes Parks detestable, I mean that I would not want to see that man in a painting. He is conniving and vitriolic. He’s like a strange, human form of a leech who takes a teenage Elvis and sucks his vivacity dry — by 42, the age Elvis dies, he feels and looks like a hundred years old.
Frankly, Austin Butler is magnificent as Elvis. He gives him such a lost puppy sweetness. You become both protective and alarmed by the fact that somebody can stay under the gaze and guidance of a predator for decades. Beyond Luhrmann’s take on cultural appropriation versus appreciation, the film also looks into how fame is a drug — like actual drugs, can stunt your mental growth to stay stuck at the age of your first hit.
Butler mystifies as a 17-year-old Elvis desperate for external validation and to achieve fame as both the emotional and financial stability he never had. Yet, the years pass by, and while he internally stays a boy, on the outside he becomes an older man with a growing waistline, a media world’s running joke, and a beloved wife’s pain over marrying an addict. Elvis’ gut-wrenching epiphany that his whole life was blocked from its fullness and joy by the very man he trusted to help him achieve it is why Butler deserves an Oscar. This young man plays so perfectly the heartbreak of realizing that caring about others’ views of you can truly stop you from being the you that you dreamed of.
Watch Elvis, in theaters, when it opens June 24, 2022.
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