Why Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ has got us all shook up
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Sunday 26 June 2022 By Matt d’Ancona © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved
All these years on, it is still hard to improve upon the famous words of Greil Marcus in Mystery Train (1975):
‘Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the City of Memphis… and even a president [Nixon]... Elvis’s fantasy of freedom, the audience’s fantasy, takes on such reality that there is nothing left in the real world that can inspire the fantasy or threaten it. What is left is for the fantasy to replace the world; and that, night after night, is what Elvis and his audience make happen.’
Which is why Baz Luhrmann – master of the hyper-real and the circus-ring spectacular – is in many ways the ideal director to tackle the life and music of the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who became King of the World.
The casting of Austin Butler as the lead in Elvis (general release, Friday 24 June) turns out to be inspired. Many actors have played Elvis, but most have stumbled on the steps of accurate impersonation, ending up as little more than highly paid Elvis tribute acts. Butler does not aspire to absolute accuracy, but seeks the deeper truth of the character: the preternaturally gifted, ambitious, baffled young man from the South, longing ferociously for the heights of superstardom but completely out of his depth in the place where it took him.
The film is less a by-the-numbers narration of Presley’s passage from hillbilly sensation to wrecked Vegas freak show than an account of his long collaboration with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, weighed down by prosthetics, and speaking in a thick Dutch accent). The film plots a profoundly exploitative relationship that was conducted almost entirely on Parker’s terms. Born Andreas van Kuijk in June 1909, apparently in Breda, Holland, Parker reinvented himself as a native of Huntington, West Virginia. Never taking US citizenship, embroiled with the mob and with the segregationist political bodies that kept racial integration at bay, Parker was allergic to any interaction with government or authority. This meant he was intrinsically averse to anything that would take Presley abroad (too many officials, too many borders).
Was the relationship between manager and star coercive? Up to a point. Few great performers have been so systematically manipulated and fleeced as Presley was. Yet, in the end, their pact was Faustian: Elvis did not resist the narcotic haze into which ‘the Colonel’ despatched him, nor question the commercial strategy that led a four-week engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas to metastasise into a seven-year residency, by the end of which the bloated, overweight Presley could barely hold the microphone.
Capitalism, celebrity, self-destruction, genius: Elvis incarnated them all and much more. Forty-five years since his death, his influence remains phenomenal and mythic – a cultural omnipresence that Luhrmann understands well.
‘Two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity’: thus does Parker describe himself and Presley. But what humanity was there left at the end, not least in the 20 lonely years that the Colonel lived after Elvis died? Did anyone really win, or derive happiness from, the greatest show business story of them all? In the end, the Mystery Train was all too aptly named.
Kite Festival 2023 – book now
Kite, our festival of ideas and music, returns to Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire on 9 to 11 June 2023. The reaction to Kite from press, industry and festival goers alike has been extraordinary. Here’s one from notoriously hard-to-please Backseat Mafia: ‘Not since the very first Latitude Festival back in 2006 has such an eclectic and ambitious programme of events been so successfully executed. At times it felt like an absorbing virtual reality trip through the pages of a Sunday supplement.’ You have until midnight on Sunday 3 July to get super early bird tickets, which are 25% off the final price.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
AIDS: The Unheard Tapes (27 June, BBC Two)
The late, great writer Paul Monette used to fret that the AIDS epidemic would one day fade from memory and that the dead would be forgotten. At the height of the virus’s savage impact – when HIV was in the headlines daily – such collective amnesia seemed almost inconceivable. But Monette was right. The risk was, and remains real.
Much credit is due, then, to this innovative three-part documentary series from the BBC’s partnership with the Open University. Using never-before broadcast interviews archived in the British Library – the recordings lip-synced by actors – AIDS: The Unheard Tapes traces the history of the disease from the death of Heaven barman Terry Higgins in 1982 to the emergence of a successful drug combination in 1996.
The testimonies are raw, shocking and humbling; portraying in terrible detail the isolation, suffering and stigma suffered by those who caught the virus and, in all too many cases, went on to die alone in sequestered wards. The use of music – especially Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) – is deft, and the editing sharp, as recollection after recollection acts as a reminder to the viewer of how bad it was. Most shocking of all are the end cards that record the deaths of those whose voices we can, at least, now hear once more.
Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott
Perhaps best known for the Costa Award-winning In The Days Of Rain, a memoir of her family’s entanglement in a fundamentalist sect, Rebecca Stott has also enjoyed great success as a writer of fiction. In this, her third novel, she takes us back to the Britain of the sixth century AD, deserted by the ‘Sun Kings’ – the Romans – and, more specifically, the ‘Ghost City’ of abandoned Londinium. The death of the Great Smith, a Saxon exiled from the court of King Osric to a Thames mudflat, leaves his daughters, Isla and Blue, to fend for themselves. Though younger, Blue has the gift of supernatural night – which is the least the two young women need as they walk through the shadows of London. The air ripples with whispers of mutiny, magic and rumours of a youthful Briton named Arthur who is rallying the tribes against the Saxons. An adventure story that is also full of historical resonance, Dark Earth is a wonderful novel that will grip your attention and expand your imagination.
Life Is Yours by Foals
Headliners on Glastonbury’s Other Stage this Friday, Foals have rolled the pitch perfectly with their seventh album. After the two-part Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost in 2019, a BRIT Award for Best Group, and a third Mercury Prize nomination, the band seemed set for global domination – a dream punctured, like so many, by the pathogen.
Instead of pretending that they are simply resuming business as usual, Foals have opted for a joyous left-turn into disco, Balearic beats and a sound that owes more to Chic than to classic indie. As front man Yannis Philippakis put it to the NME: ‘This is our idea of a going-out record.’ This may yet have a claim to be the finest thing ever written in Peckham.
Fans of pop music history can look forward to our ThinkIn with London’s First Lady of Soul, P.P. Arnold. After making her name with the immortal ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ in 1966, the list of artists she’s worked with since reads like a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll history – and she’ll be telling some of her incredible stories in our newsroom on Thursday 12 July.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner