The late, great critic Lester Bangs said “we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” in his 1977 obituary for the legendary performer.
But nearly half a century later, do we still agree on Elvis?
Purely as a musical force, it can be argued that the catalog of Elvis Presley does not quite endure as the rock ‘n’ roll legends he inspired, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
As pointed out by Morgan Enos at Consequence of Sound: “The Stones remain a titanic concert draw despite losing a key member. The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ didn’t just lift us out of Turkey Day doldrums; it bestowed on us a rare case of almost universal common ground. Recent deluxe editions of both beloved bands’ classic albums do gangbusters on Spotify. Speaking of: at press time, the Beatles command 26 million monthly listeners; the Stones, 21 mil. Elvis Presley? A paltry 13.”
Enos also points to a 2017, The Guardian article “addressing the King’s ‘plummeting’ popularity, citing a poll of 18- to 24-year-olds that revealed that 29% of them had never listened to an Elvis song.”
Part of the intent behind director Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” is to reintroduce Presley to a younger generation that knows about his music, but don’t really interact with it in any meaningful way, with Luhrmann’s telling the The New York Times “He’s so there, he’s not there anymore.”
But Presley could be a tough sell to a younger generation.
While rock ‘n’ roll isn’t as dead as many critics like to say, it’s also not the lifeblood of American pop culture like it was decades ago. It’s also very easy to paint Presley as the original cultural appropriator, and a generation more tuned into social issues might look askance at a white man making millions off of a black musical form, selling r&b and gospel to white audiences too prejudiced to seek the music out from its creators.
Though it should be pointed out that Presley has always had his defenders in this area, including historians and critics that say the singer was not racist, and truly appreciated and respected the musical icons he was influenced by.
As proof, they point to him playing for black audiences at Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park, ignoring the state’s strict segregation laws. And many black associates and friends of Presley have long disputed rumors of him making racially disparaging comments.
So he has a complicated legacy, to put it lightly.
But the Presley estate has a vested interest in introducing him to a younger audience and reviving cultural appreciation of him, and it no doubt noticed that “Bohemian Rhapsody” did wonders for Queen’s back catalog.Hollywood certainly noticed that a broad audience, including young people, are willing to see a biopic if it features a recognizable name and is told with flair.
And whatever else you might say about him, director Baz Luhrmann does not lack for flair.
Baz Luhrmann Is Just A Lot
The jukebox musical, in which a movie’s plot is mainly told through song and dance numbers (and said plot is often just an excuse for said song and dance numbers) wasn’t created by Luhrmann, but he arguably helped usher in the modern day version with the 2001 musical “Moulin Rouge!”
Luhrmann works in big swings. His films, including “William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby” are unapologetically bold and colorful, filled with big feelings, big acting with a capital A and overwhelming sensory experiences. He is a man unfamiliar with shame and uninterested in nuance. For some people, that works, and they can get lost in his films. But for others, it’s just way too much.
The story of Elvis Presley is the story of shifting cultural attitudes and ingrained prejudices about race, sex, the South, the way society treats the poor and the very idea of popular music itself. Presley helped create what a pop star should look and perform like, and no one really doubted that Luhrmann could bring the spectacle that a film about him would need. But was he the right director to delve into the more nuanced ideas about Presley says about America, then and now?
What Are Critics Saying About “Elvis?”
Critics have a love it-or-hate it relationship with Luhrmann, and that continues with his latest film, which is being released by Warner Bros (WBD) . Entertainment Weekly has called it “electrifying” and Vanity Fair deems it “turgid and shallow.”
But even critics, like Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, who hate the film and feel like it doesn’t transcend the typical rise and fall biopic cliches are willing to praise the titular performance by star Austin Butler, saying he “ably embodies early Elvis’s almost androgynous—and yet still aggressively virile—magnetism. He does some of his own singing, and while he doesn’t quite nail the power and richness of the real thing, it’s a good enough approximation.”
As part of his ongoing quest to portray every American, Tom Hanks plays Presley’s unscrupulous manager Col. Tom Parker, who provides the film’s voiceover. Hanks has become a stand-in for American decency, but critics are once again delighted to remember that he’s also fun when playing a scoundrel.
Then there’s the matter of, whatever else can be said about Presley, he was a dynamite singer, and even if the movie falls flat for many, it still has a soundtrack full of classics.
Rolling Stone thinks the film is overwhelming, but mostly in a good way.
Yeah, Forbes isn't so hot on it, but likes Butler's performance.
Consequence calls it "not as absurd as you might think." Ok!
The Hollywood Reporter gets into the more-is-more of it all.
Writing for RogerEbert.com, Robert Daniels finds the film shallow.