King Legacy SCRIPT 06 09
A lot of biopics have trouble solving this conundrum. And few, if any, can fully avoid falling into hagiography, which is probably the most common trapping of the genre. Elvis, director and co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann's dizzyingly absurd take on the life of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), doesn't just fail at making the so-called King of Rock and Roll into a three-dimensional human being; it actively plunges him further into the recesses of memedom, while making his legacy out to be far less interesting than it actually is.
More frustrating, though, is how Elvis treats its subject's relationship to Black music and culture. Luhrmann and his co-writers know it's a facet that can't be ignored, but what is clearly intended to serve as tribute to Presley's Black predecessors and contemporaries plays out instead as lip service. Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey), B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Little Richard (Alton Mason) all pop up here and there in bit parts to draw out the lineage and demonstrate how Presley was embraced by Black communities in his early years. But if a viewer goes into this movie knowing little to nothing about Presley, they'll come away believing it was as simple as that, because the film consciously avoids the more fraught legacy he's had as the white \"king\" of a genre rooted in Black tradition.
There's no mention of the widespread rumor that he once said \"the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes,\" a rumor that persisted for decades and no doubt helped cement him as little more than a cultural appropriator in the eyes of many. Concrete evidence of this failed to materialize, and it was shot down by Presley himself in an interview with the Black magazine Jet, where he added that \"rock and roll was here a long time before I came along. No one can sing that kind of music like colored people.\" But excising any criticisms or apprehensions from Black artists in the script ultimately does a disservice to him and the inherent nuances in how his art has been received.
Yet by the end, a gaudy gloss remains coated upon the man, myth, and legend, Elvis. The movie's answer for what killed Presley, metaphorically speaking, will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever watched a biopic about a pop star. The zany excesses of Elvis just aren't enough to cover over the paint-by-numbers idolatry.