Ever since I saw the Elvis movie this weekend, I’ve been listening to old Elvis Presley tunes. Turns out the best-selling recording artist of all time is pretty good. It’s a major spectacle, as you’d expect from a Baz Luhrmann film, and every inch worthy of The King. Austin Butler delivers under the weight of pressure that a man like Presley also brings. He feels like the early favorite for Best Actor, although Oscar bait season has yet to begin and my pick for this year remains Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Ke Huy Quan. It sometimes focuses on visuals rather than storytelling, though it tells a largely accurate story, even if it sidesteps the age difference between Priscilla, 14, and Elvis, 24, when they met. for the first time and fell in love. There’s one moment in particular that I want to focus on, and that’s Doja Cat’s needle drop.
There are some wonderful moments throughout the film. Butler’s performance of Trouble with some of the most extreme hip thrusts known to man, crazy enough to literally start a riot, comes to mind. Framing the comeback special as Elvis belts If I Can Dream with the iconic red ELVIS lettering behind him is another. Elvis sitting on the worn Hollywood sign, the now rusty and decaying golden age as he overlooks a city that no longer loves him – that’s a great visual metaphor Baz, baby! – is just as grand as I expected. Luhrmann first imagined it by sketching it vaguely on a storyboard and smiling at himself. But it was to the flavor of modern music that had fallen into the world that I left the theater thinking.
This is nothing new for Baz Luhrmann. In his previous film, the equally spectacular The Great Gatsby, Jay-Z and Lana del Rey both worked on the soundtrack, and remixes of their two songs appear sporadically, as does an original del Rey song. He received so much love, hate and confusion in it, but I think he deserves a little more of his place in Elvis. About a month before the movie was released, we knew there would be modern artists involved in the soundtrack – I was especially looking forward to Kacey Musgraves covering Can’t Help Falling In Love, which is diegetic in the movie, crackling out of the disc player in Priscilla’s room as she and Elvis talk. It’s a surprisingly understated use of music by Luhrmann, but by this point he’s already had some fun with Doja Cat.
The film is more about Elvis’ career than his life, picking up after his recording of O Mama. He is quick to say that Elvis’ inspirations throughout his life, and especially early in his career, came from black musicians. He spends most of the first act on Beale Street and has long conversations with B.B. King, as well as watching Little Richard play Tutti Frutti while still an unknown. We see him as a young boy – the only scene of him as a young boy, in fact – weaving between tents of gospel music and spying blues bars through cracks of rust. Elvis was raised around black influences and, as the movie explicitly says, got his breakthrough because he was “a white boy who sings like a nigger.”
Elvis acknowledges this criticism of his star, which has only grown stronger over the years. As Eminem (also on the soundtrack, in a clear reference to this idea) was accused decades later, Elvis was a white boy who ‘stole’ black culture and got rich, while black people didn’t. got nothing. Walk Elvis down Beale Street, highlighting how important black art was to the man, while a black musician plays a remix of Hound Dog – originally recorded by a black artist, popularized by Elvis Presley – is about as close as an Elvis biopic goes to apologizing for raising the white man who became a legend on the backs of starved black talent. It’s not just a modern needle drop like in Gatsby, to infuse the film with a freshness for today’s audiences, but a clear acknowledgment of the people who made Elvis. Doja Cat as a 1950s Beale Street soundtrack is shocking at first, but it’s a clever musical cue that says a lot about Elvis the Man and Elvis the King.
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