Bright Light City Gonna Set My Soul On Fire: I watch Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”

Bright Light City Gonna Set My Soul On Fire: I watch Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” July 25, 2022

I had to watch this thing, even though I didn’t know what interesting thing there might be to say about the legend of Elvis Presley, because Baz Luhrmann is a man who directs like Yma Sumac sings. His camera is a tiger on a tilt-a-whirl, he whacks anachronistic scraps of music together like a kid with construction paper and paste, his whole mind just seems cartoony. His Romeo and Juliet was neon Jesus as far as the eye could see. These violent delights have violent ends. And that’s what this movie is too, it’s grabby and it prowls; and it does have something to say, even if by the end it’s saying it a little too carefully.

The first half of Elvis is unbearably good. It opens not with the hits, “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Blue Suede Shoes,” and not with the influences–you’ll get them later, don’t worry, Big Mama Thornton will strut between the barstools belting “Hound Dog” because Baz Luhrmann always gives the people what we want, but the opening number is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This collision of Christ and violence, beauty and wrath, this sales pitch (notice how she never says, “We shall kill to make them free”?) and reminder that America is two countries, still–it’s the perfect choice.

This movie’s style is a wrack of ecstasies. It’s comic-booky and color-drenched. It swirls and sprawls and then punctuates with precise cuts. And its subject matter is ecstasy too: all the ways we package and sell ecstasy. Elvis‘s Elvis is a microcosm of his country, of course, and Elvis‘s America is a tent revival on a carnival midway. Everything’s forbidden and everything’s for sale.

And–oh, I didn’t expect this, nobody asked Luhrmann to do this and I’m so glad he did–and the undercurrent of evil at the midnight carnival is mostly about racism. I’m going to write a bit about that, because I want to think about why it worked for me. All these rock’n’roll movies always make their heroes make a choice, the choice is always the wrong one (if it were the right one, we wouldn’t know their names), and in this movie Elvis’s choice is between the Black world that helped form him, and the white world that pays him. The scene where the young Elvis (Austin Butler) writhes on a small-town bandstand singing that he’s evil, evil, evil is the best depiction of how racial injustice warps American moral categories since Huck Finn said well then he’d go to Hell.

Like okay, is it weird to make Elvis the avatar of racial rebellion? Is it a way to make a movie about the white guy and not (say) Little Richard, a man whose life went through all kinds of equally-American twists? Sure of course, you can do that math yourself. But I think in this case I’ll argue that that’s about the context of Elvis–which movies you can sell and which ones you can’t–and not about the movie Elvis, which does so much right with its neon, falsetto wailing, unsubtle racial politics. Butler gives Elvis a genuine ambiguity: he’s femmey and also just strange, his gyrations don’t come across as calculated seduction but as something born of deep discomfort and lostness, he’s lost and somehow wrong and this very hot lost wrongness is what makes him a threatening figure for nice white girls to swoon over. If a man who can’t be a good, normal white boy is hotter than a man who can, then even that uncanny hotness might carry a whiff of treason. This Elvis is a door swinging wildly on his hinges, always opening onto two worlds at once, giving every acceptable girl and boy glimpses of an unacceptable future.

The villain here is the narrator, Tom Hanks (!) as Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager and himself a man of mystery. Luhrmann pulls out all the stops here; Parker, a promoter/con man/genius, is the nightmare carnival in human form. Something Wicked This Way Strums! He’s a Gatsby figure, he’s all-American insofar as he is constantly hiding something and grabbing something, he’s a man with a dream and that dream involves turning Elvis Presley into a human slot machine. He’s got the white suit and the clown-headed cane (!!!) and he’s gonna make Elvis so g-d—- normal, you could use him as a Cuisinart. Against this extremely white man, there are a host of subtler foils for Elvis who flicker in and out of the narrative, always suggesting that other lives are possible, even if they’re only possible for other people: BB King, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson; and toward the very end a hint at Michael Jackson, to remind you that it could always be worse.

Elvis, as I feel like everybody knows, did not actually choose solidarity against racial injustice. Luhrmann pushes the script ’til you can hear its wheels squeak, trying to make Elvis the tragedy of a man who had good racial opinions. Who cares? Not necessary. The sad right-thinking remarks that burble from Elvis’s lips at the death of Dr. King or Bobby Kennedy are just bad and not the point. The end of the movie, where title cards tell us in white-on-black text what happened to everybody and then, in gold text, that Elvis’s like cultural influence or whatever is yuuge and continues to this day, undercuts the entire moral of the Sweet Smell of Success story we’ve just been told. All that stuff sucks, it’s rote caressing of Baby Boom nostalgia.

But the movie has already shown us Elvis as just a collage of longings, someone in desperate need of self-loss, and the places where he was able to lose himself most gently were always Black spaces. There’s a bit in Lawrence of Arabia (and what a weird resonance that film has with this one, now that I think about it) where somebody asks Lawrence, in re: the desert, “How much nothing does a man need?”

Nothing or everything; face the fire hoses or the fans; jail, maybe, or the International Hotel. Your body’s on the line either way.

Elvis memorabilia via Wikimedia Commons.

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