Nearly a half-century has passed since Elvis left the building, permanently.
Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann has just unleashed “Elvis,” his big, bold, nearly three-hour biopic, at Cannes and that Warner Bros. bet appears to have paid off. The film is starting its march toward theaters with an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score, though that ebullient aggregate assessment may mask some particularly resentful and dismissive reviews from a few of the world’s top critics. Soon, the world of Elvis acolytes, and mildly curious New Century film and music fans who know little beyond the name and the lamé, will have their say.
Whatever its artistic qualities or failings, “Elvis” is already providing a potent reminder of that edict from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “Print the legend.” Ford’s Rule applies to both the biopic rhapsodizing of (as in “Bohemian”) — and the reviewing/reporting of — the depictions and lives of major historical figures, especially cultural legends like Presley.
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson nicely articulates why Luhrmann’s “Elvis” may represent a particularly wasted opportunity for an important critical reassessment based upon a thorough historical review.
“Maybe the calculation was that everyone knows everything about Elvis already, which certainly might have been true 30 years ago,” Lawson writes in his review of the film. “Nowadays, however, his iconic status might need more arguing.”
But Baz Luhrmann is only half of the problem. The other half is the misreporting, faulty memories and/or haphazard research of the journalists and critics writing about “Elvis.”
Not to name and shame, but take a look at the words of some of the entertainment press’s finest critics.
“…Elvis remained a fixture of the International Hotel in Las Vegas from 1969 to 1976, performing show after sold-out show until just a year before his death,” reads one. “Keeping Presley tied to Vegas was just one of the many machinations of his ruthlessly exploitative manager…”
That doesn’t match this account of that period of Elvis’s career, courtesy of the easily researched Elvis History Blog.
“There was a dark side, though, to Elvis’s addiction to live audiences. In 1976, at the age of 41, he worked tirelessly on the road — 122 concerts in 74 cities.” Not exactly tied down to one. And then, “in the first six months of 1977, he kept up the tempo with 54 shows in 49 cities. That frenetic pace fueled his drug habit and certainly contributed to his early death.”
Since the movie appears to have followed the popular mythology of Presley’s longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker as half gargoyle, half Rasputin, all evil, it’s little surprise that the critical community feels sanctioned to dismiss Parker as “a self-serving con man who monopolized the star’s artistic and personal freedom,” as one top critic summarized.
No less an expert than acclaimed Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick applies nuance missing from most reviews:
“Presley’s ‘totemic belief in the Colonel’ was cemented while he was in the Army, when his greatest fear was that time and distance would crash his career and destroy his popularity. Parker, the canny manager-merchandiser, promised that wouldn’t happen and his tireless efforts to keep Presley’s name before the American public as both a box-office star and recording artist convinced the singer that they were an unbeatable team.”
Another critic exalts “Elvis” for its depiction of Elvis as Victim, “a portrait of a serious man trapped in an unserious life.”
Lost in the critical rush to crush the Colonel is something Waylon Jennings, in his autobiography “Waylon,” wrote about the Elvis he knew. As in actually knew.
“He had not progressed very much from when he was 18; he was still like a little boy, in so many ways. All he did was play, like a kid, and sing… A lot of people like to say he was secretly sad, but I don’t believe that. If anything, I don’t believe that he was deep enough inside. He was having fun until the last minute. He loved being Elvis, the mystique of bodyguards, and girls screaming, and being adored.”
If there’s any lesson in this year’s Baz-relief portrait of Tupelo’s Finest, and in the myriad murky historical revisitations to his legacy, it’s that major cultural figures can withstand everything time (and Sydney) throws at them.
And perhaps the misreadings and mangled historical accounts only add to our appreciation of Elvis as the malleable mystical musical hero who, like Krishna, takes on the qualities of a Supreme Personality.
In any event, Elvis is still worth knowing more about, especially the history as opposed to the hysteria, because his art is still worth listening to, and will be until the last Elvis impersonator hangs up his white sequined jumpsuit.