Late Night host Stephen Colbert called director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, now in theaters, “the most Baz Luhrmanny Baz Luhrmann film.”
Luhrmann’s films hit the screen like a hallucinogen-laced glitter bomb, so we kind of know what to expect in that respect.
But what’s that got to do with Elvis Presley?
Elvis wasn’t averse to glitz. Any clip of him in the 1970s can confirm this. The gold curtains that rose on his Vegas shows, the gem-laden jewelry – he liked his bling.
So far, so Baz Luhrmanny.
Luhrmann’s fascination with shiny things, though, comes with a knowing wink – an ironic distance even when he’s bathing his sets in shimmer.
Luhrmann’s bejeweled visions make artifice the point: It’s not real so revel in it!
For Presley, the flash was success made tangible. A large chunk or gold studded with jewels around his finger, wrist or neck showed the world he’d made it.
Those gold curtains said Vegas gives Elvis what he wants. Elvis drew the crowds that filled Vegas coffers. He’d made it, and “it” was a long way from where he started.
He was born smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression to Vernon and Gladys Presley, who didn’t have much even when the economy hadn’t tanked.
Vernon’s job-getting skills were weak, his job-holding skills weaker. The family mostly lived on government assistance and family.
Elvis started with close to nothing and became one of the most famous people in the world. Then he had to do it again.
Presley got his draft notice in late 1957 and spent the next two years in the Army stationed in Germany. (Elvis’ hitch inspired the musical Bye Bye Birdie.) After his 1960 discharge, manager Colonel Tom Parker steered him into the movies, three a year for a while. The movies quickly went from formulaic fun to dreadful. As rock ‘n’ roll exploded artistically and commercially, Elvis became a thing of the past.
Presley resurrected his moribund career by refocusing on music. He donned black leather for a segment on his 1968 TV special best known as the “’68 Comeback Special” and in a few minutes reestablished the credibility he lost during the movie years. Soon enough, his records were in the charts again. His Vegas show drew ecstatic crowds and reviews. It all went south rather quickly. We know how it all ended. And no amount of bling or glitter can make that picture pretty.
Presley’s story and his legacy are too complex to cover adequately in a movie, even a nearly three-hour one. The curious should check out the two-volume biography by Peter Guralnick, one of the most authoritative music writers around. The section on Elvis in author Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is illuminating and well worth your time.
To know why Elvis still matters, though, listen to his music. Listen to The Sun Sessions, From Elvis in Memphis, Elvis Country, Elvis’ Golden Records. That’s what made this poor boy a legend.