Elvis Is Back In The Building: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

If you aren’t screaming and an Elvis fan by the end of this movie - well, are you even alive?

Though highly fictionalised, what Baz Luhrmann has done is reinstate Elvis the person, rather than as he is currently seen — a walking mass of addictions, serious health issues, dubious sexual mores and cultural appropriation. Here the audience can first and foremost enjoy Elvis — singer of songs, (apparent mumbler, forgetter of lines, poor player of guitar); epic performer and showman; seeker of a good movie role and curator of his image, as well as experience what all the fuss about his dance moves was really all about.

Intriguingly we see the action through the perspectives of Elvis, his creepy, Machiavellian manager/controller Colonel Tom Parker, and at points, his wife Priscilla. The film focuses on Elvis’s economically disadvantaged upbringing and how this exposed him to Blues, Bluegrass and Gospel music, literally hanging out with BB King and Little Richard, a love of Memphis ‘black’ fashions; Pentecostal churches and faith, and much wider acceptance than the heavily segregated South would encourage.

Having started watching this movie not really a fan of Elvis or his music, once you see his incredible (implied spiritual) charisma (and God-given talent it is suggested) unleashed on stage as he switches from country to Blues and Rock’n’Roll — it’s hard to keep still or to not start screaming, though it is funny at the same time. Elvis thinks so too, asking ‘why are they doing that?’ Also depicted is how much Elvis was a team production — his family were very much behind him; faith was a huge part of who they were and Elvis feels incredibly responsible for providing for his family, especially his Mum and protecting his Dad’s reputation like a kind of superhero. (All of which comes out in spending his wealth and creating a luxurious lifestyle for his family at Graceland).

I’ve loved Elvis’ introduction into Hollywood and marriage to Priscilla shown as a dance sequence (as though in one of his own movies). Equally commendable is Priscilla’s leaving Elvis when he is addicted and adulterous — such an emotional leaving scene and worthy of applause as she loves her husband but draws a line at the disrespect being shown to herself and their child. Priscilla seems to be one of the few people who truly cares for Elvis (as himself) but he shuts her out of his life and disregards her feelings and his commitment to her and his family.

What is only hinted at and really glossed over is Elvis’s deterioration into drug addiction, obesity, obsessive diets and his pursuit of young girls (mostly his idolising fans). What we do see is how love of fans corrupts Elvis (as is his pleasing/fight with his surrogate parent manager Parker) and how overcontrolled and overworked, he becomes addicted and exploitatively self-indulgent. Here it is the impact of politics which triggers Elvis’s anger rather than the fact that he had strict traditional standards and was taking pills to keep him awake or was trying to respond to a national crisis.

Colonel Parker is definitely the villain as he seeks to use Elvis to generate money to pay his gambling debts — equally failing is Elvis’s Dad who fails to stand up for his son. As Parker says, everyone is making money out of and off of Elvis (and yet Parker always manages until almost the end to appear on Elvis’s side, planting thoughts in his head of attacks and threat). However Elvis fights back with the music he loves — the blues and gospels of his childhood, although he never gets to travel beyond America as an artist (because it is implied Parker doesn’t have a passport and is some kind of fugitive Nazi).

Fact checking quibbles aside, this is a creative, imaginative work which reinstates the music and Elvis’s place in the wider scene and very racist American society at the time, as well as showing us something of the man behind the songs and the reputation. If only though he had been allowed to travel to Europe — what would Elvis back in the USSR have looked like?!!! Nicely edited in is actual footage of Elvis’s performances and fans.

As a cast all the performances are fantastic — especially Austin Butler in increasingly absurd outfits and layers of sweat and Olivia DeJonge as a overawed but tough girl, then a very strong and loving woman. The soundtrack too is wonderful as it incorporates modern music to add to the emotion and beautifully edited in; the energy and camera work is wonderful (even using animation to show the comic book influences and media hype on Elvis’s mind and emotions). What an exciting time the 1950s and 1960s appear to be in the hands of Baz Luhrmann and as a hater of Christmas jumpers how I enjoyed seeing them get their comeuppance!





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