Elvis isn’t a particularly funny movie. But it did make me laugh out loud exactly one time, which is the best thing I can say about Baz Lurhmann’s exhaustingly loud, terribly boring new film.
Early in the movie, Colonel Tom Parker (a grotesque Tom Hanks) is working with country singer Hank Snow, booking him for traveling music revues. We know he’s a money-hungry hustler—he’s narrating the movie from the perspective of many years later, after he’s gambled all of now-dead Elvis Presley’s money away. But right now, he’s happy working with the popular Hank.
But then he hears someone on the radio that everyone’s freaking out about. Who is this guy, playing and belting this wild rock and roll, uh, music? Colonel Tom can already tell just from listening to this one song that this guy is definitely going to be the star of the show, even if he’s only on the bottom of the lineup.
And best of all, it turns out that this guy is white.
Of course he’s white, you say! This is a Baz Luhrmann movie, after all. It is literally called Elvis, because it’s about Elvis. (By the way, that guy that everyone was hyped up about? That was Elvis.) But the singer that Tom Parker hears sure sounds like a Black guy to Tom. White guys don’t hoot and holler like that! Their guitar licks aren’t so loud—heck, they’re barely licks. At best, Hank Snow would be invited to a hootenanny, not the kind of debauched club this dude on the radio must be recording from.
So when Hank’s son’s Jimmie (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who’s been jamming to the song, tells Colonel Tom that this singer is white, he absolutely loses his shit.
“He’s …white?” Colonel Tom says, the film closing in on his pale, ghoulish mug. “He’s…white?!” He’s practically shouting. His blood pressure must be off the charts. His heart is begging for him to calm down. “He’s white???? He’s white????!!!!”
Colonel Tom is so excited that Elvis Presley is a white man—a.k.a. someone he could feasibly sign to a contract and make money off of. The year is 1955, after all, and the city is Memphis, Tennessee. Colonel Tom was not about to work with no Black dude.
I guffawed, because here was Tom Hanks in the least flattering role of his lifetime, yelping in a garish Eastern European accent about Elvis Presley’s skin color. Yet the people sitting in the theater with me seemed nonplussed by this absurd reaction. Most of them were older than me, I could tell; they all literally clapped every time Elvis (Austin Butler) performed on-screen. They likely grew up steeped in the myth that Elvis was the whitest Black dude on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Elvis’ music was too raucous, his guitars too loud, his shouts too shout-y: all things that got him looped in with Black artists, not his fellow white ones. Some stations were reportedly reluctant to play his early records for fear of causing a stir among conservative white listeners. You know the drill: Black people sound like this; white people sound like this.
Elvis makes clear that Elvis definitely had Black musical influences: He grew up listening to Black spirituals and electric guitar-queen Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who briefly performs in the film (played by the artist Yola). He was besties with B.B. King, who takes him to a small Black club show where Little Richard sings “Tutti Frutti.” Elvis correctly says that Little Richard’s lively performance and song rule; B.B. (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) correctly says that Elvis could go cover that song and actually make some money off of it.
He laughs that off, but Elvis definitely did make money off Black artists’ songs; “Hound Dog,” for instance, was originally recorded by Black blues artist Big Mama Thornton. Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” is better known as Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.” And B.B. knew what he was talking about with that Little Richard song: While Elvis blessedly did not cover “Tutti Frutti,” Pat Boone’s version did much better than Richard’s on the charts.
At the same time, Luhrmann’s hagiographic take overstates Elvis’ “Blackness”—that is to say, the perception that he signalled non-white culture in a segregated society.
Even though Elvis did grow up poor in a predominantly Black area, surrounded by Black people, his whiteness was obvious and unignorable. He was as much a country lover as a rock-and-roller. He was playing their songs and hanging out with them on Beale Street, but Elvis wasn’t touring with, giving money back to, or regularly crediting his Black influences in material ways. There’s a large difference between listening to Black music and listening to Black musicians.
“He was playing their songs and hanging out with them on Beale Street, but Elvis wasn’t touring with, giving money back to, or regularly crediting his Black influences in material ways.”
As strange as putting Elvis Presley and staid country artist Hank Snow on the same bill seemed, Elvis’ racial line-skirting priors weren’t as big a deal as his post-war, horny-dude hotness. He swayed his hips, thrusted his pelvis, and got women hot and bothered—all dangerous behavior, according to pop culture’s puritanical gatekeepers in the mid-’50s. His open display of sexuality was Elvis’ most threatening weapon.
And Elvis goes to great lengths to show how uncomfortably sexy Elvis was to watch for pearl-clutching white men. There’s a part where he might as well be orgasming on stage that made me want to leave my body. Women practically hand him their bras. Elvis the Pelvis, indeed!
The issue of Elvis’ “Black-sounding” voice could be solved by Colonel Tom screaming to anyone in earshot about how Elvis is, in fact, white. But there wasn’t much that even the Colonel could do about Elvis’ dang hips.
Perhaps that’s what Tom Parker should have been getting all worked up about: “He’s…hot? He’s hot???? He’s hot????!!!!”
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