We sometimes talk as a society as though being successful were somehow the be-all and end-all – as if it were somehow all that mattered in and of itself. Some time in the 21st century, the cry went up that fame was all, and that a particular set of metrics mattered. In the world of music, it would mean that marvellous Holy Grail: the hit, the platinum disc.
The history of rock and roll seems on the face of it to make it clear in bold italics that this entire thing was always a gigantic folly. Success as a musician, especially in an era of drug-taking and alcoholism made respectable, has with astonishing regularity meant premature death.
In the light of the 2020s, the life expectancy of the rock star seems sometimes to veer wildly between those who die very young, such as Moon, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Michael Hutchence and so on, to the recent spate of octogenarians, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson. It is as if, if you can somehow manage not to die, then a hedonistic lifestyle can shade by gradations of mellowing into a pampered one, until a kind of creased longevity is achieved.
Elvis, of course, did die – or rather didn’t manage not to. In fact, his death lacks the Chatterton-esque Romanticism of some of his peers, since he declined physically to such an extent before his eventual demise.
But the fact that the Elvis legend persists is all to do with the enormity of his impact, and Baz Lurhmann’s excellent film, evokes that like no other biopic about Elvis.
Listening to Elvis today can be a perplexing, even tame experience. Though we still to some extent inhabit the world of Elvis, we don’t always realise it: for one thing recording technology has come a long way since that time, robbing his sound of its original shock and immediacy. This state of affairs is to some extent exacerbated by the way in which the typical Elvis mix on Spotify or iTunes is a bewildering mix of his early stuff, which really was revolutionary, with the later Vegas work, which seems schmaltzy today.
What lessons does the film have for a music career? In the first place, we see in the early scenes that great achievement is very often to do with being open to influence and to new information. Elvis’ real legacy was to listen to the great black music of the 1950s, and to open himself up to its influence – and insodoing to further it.
There is a tremendous scene where the boy Elvis, is peeping through a window, and sees a black rock and roll band, and experiences the thrill and pulse of that music as a thing which he must have in his life – and the only way to do that will be to emulate it. It is often said that when Elvis first came on the radio, people assumed his vocal chords belonged to a black singer.
In all our careers, there is knowledge which may have a forbidden quality; Elvis is a reminder of the potential benefits of running roughshod over that kind of prohibition, and of imbibing influence wherever it can be found.
In the film, this idea that Elvis sounded black on the radio is conveyed to us through Tom Hanks’ performance of Colonel Tom Parker. The question of Tom Hanks in this movie is worth a small essay in itself. Hanks, an actor – and to the extent that one can be sure of these things – probably a man to admire is nevertheless the main problem with this movie. Some critics have pointed to his disastrous accent as the principal issue with Hanks’ performance and it is indeed a strange mishmash.
I think the problem with the performance runs deeper in that Hanks, among major artists of our time, seems to me to be someone with an innate relationship to goodness. In this, he is similar to Paul McCartney, who can never keep optimism out of his songs: his inherent tendency is towards consolation. If you look at his performance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) you can see him exploring a terrain – in that case, saintliness – which he feels a natural kinship with.
Here, in Elvis, he is fatally severed from the subject matter of human evil, meaning that he is at an odd distance from the essential topic of the performance. It is like a singer choosing to sing out of range, or a writer with no ability for dialogue switching from novel to the drama.
The resulting performance doesn’t quite derail the movie, though it comes close. Elvis himself seems to have been born with something opposite: an innate capacity to know what could and couldn’t be done with a song on stage. Luhrmann’s movie shows that this ability was something that he first had to learn to wield: nervousness is something everybody must overcome at some point, and it is interesting to see Austin Butler convey Elvis’ tentative first steps into his gift.
The greatest question for anyone with a creative bent is how to make money from it. It’s quite rare that an ability with the arts comes hand in hand with a talent for administration; the two aptitudes must occupy different parts of the brain, and where the one is accentuated the other is likely to be in deficit. So it was with Elvis; an outsize performative gift opened him up to exploitation, and he met, in the shape of Parker, a master exploiter.
The film consistently shows Elvis seeking his authentic self in the teeth of the man committed to falsifying that self – and to commercialising the image he has created. A TV show, which looks like it will be an embarrassment of Christmas cliché perpetrated by the Colonel, is pushed back at by Elvis. Later, we see him inaugurating his big sound in Las Vegas.
Elvis sometimes appears here as a great artist – a man with an unfailing sense of what audiences want, but able to enact something at some farther point just beyond that vague idea.
In one sense, Elvis is still with us. We still have our popstars identifiable by one name – Beyoncé, Drake, Jay-Z, and so on. They are, to some extent, his inheritors. But not entirely. In another sense, the world has moved past his obsessions, or begun to wise up to the danger of self-indulgence. Today’s young people are often teetotal, and as likely to wear sneakers and design an app as they are to pick up a guitar and take drugs: they’re the better for it. Some of the 1960s susceptibility to self-indulgence was probably an inheritance of the Second World War: when life has been constricted and dangerous for so long, who could resist that bright day when it came along? It was not a time for the stricture of virtue. It was time to live again.
This is a film which does more than listening to Elvis’ records can to describe his greatness. It shows how the compulsion of the performer can rise to art, and how if that performance can be captured in sound, a memory lingers on.
What Luhrmann ultimately does is regenerate Elvis, and remind us what he did. He dragged the past with him into the future, and though he died along the way, he is as much an aspect of our lives today as the atomic bomb, or Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, or any of the other seismic things of the 21st century.
The film ends with footage of a magnificent performance by Presley himself of Unchained Melody. Desperately overweight, and sweating under lights, he nevertheless finds the notes as only the great entertainers do – the more so when the chips are down, and the world is difficult. They find the right notes because they have to, because it’s what they do – and because of decades of practice at doing so.