The scene is based on a story once told to Luhrmann by this friend: Sam Bell, who died last year at the age of 85. But the portrayal is clearly Luhrmann in all its conspicuous forbearance. The Australian filmmaker also musically frames Elvis’ spiritual awakening, later using a split-screen juxtaposing Crudup’s version of “That’s All Right” with Elvis (Austin Butler) performing the song as his debut single.
“I can’t stress this enough: you can’t tell the story of Elvis Presley without telling the story of black American rhythm and blues, the Pentecostal gospel,” Luhrmann said. “It’s just completely woven in. But I think there have been narratives of the Elvis story where that has only been touched on lightly or erased.”
“Elvis,” out in theaters Friday, makes every effort to highlight some of the black artists who inspired him, including Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola ) and Little Richard (Alton Mason). Struggling under the weight of his growing success, Elvis flees to the comforts of Beale Street in Memphis, where he hits the clubs with BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
The white music icon’s practice of drawing from the work of his black contemporaries has fueled disputes for years over whether his actions constitute appropriation and what that means for his musical legacy. By making direct connections — like with the “That’s All Right” scene and another with Big Mama Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog” — “Elvis” doesn’t necessarily diffuse the debate. Instead, it seeks to draw attention to a common enemy: an unjust music industry in an unjust society into which Elvis is thrust by his greedy, manipulative manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
This is the framework favored by Tammy Kernodle, a musicology professor at Miami University who often teaches about Elvis, whose mid-century career she described as “a case study of how Jim Crow created, but failed to create, these physical barriers in the South.” cultural barriers.” Growing up in poverty, according to Kernodle, meant that while Elvis was white, he spent his formative years among other marginalized people. He navigated “through the interior of a black community that most white people would not even have been aware of, not even in that area. He’s promoting not only the blues but also black gospel culture.”
The black artists who surrounded Elvis introduced him to a way of exploring the disenfranchisement he felt as a white man in poverty, Kernodle said. But the music business values certain narratives more than others, and Elvis’ star rose in a white America that was “so scared of Little Richard, of Chuck Berry.” In Luhrmann’s film, while Elvis sits in a Beale Street venue entranced by Little Richard’s performance, BB King remarks that Elvis could make far more money recording the song than Little Richard ever could.
“So he appropriated it? Yes and no,” Kernodle said. “It’s not an easy question. It’s not black and white.”
Decades later, rapper Chuck D addressed the dynamic surrounding Elvis’ work in Public Enemy’s 1989 hit “Fight the Power,” describing Elvis as a “racist” even though he was “a hero to most.” While Chuck D later clarified his stance, telling the Guardian in 2014 that he “personally never had anything against Elvis,” he claimed that “the American way of portraying him as the king and the great icon is disturbing.”
“You can’t ignore black history,” Chuck D said. “Now they’ve trained people to ignore all other history—they come off with this homogenized crap. So in my lyrics for all of that, Elvis was just the fall type.”
Elvis, who Kernodle said was appealing to a post-WWII generation that “rebelled against those norms about culture and race and gender and sexuality,” specifically avoided discussing politics — even after he retired from his service in the US Army which began in 1957. Luhrmann said he didn’t blame Chuck D for speaking his mind, but that “I don’t know if it’s fair” to make Elvis a scapegoat for a racist system.
“I’m not defending Elvis as a civil rights activist,” Luhrmann continued. “He was never a political being. … Col. Tom Parker had it in his head from day one, ‘Don’t talk about politics.’ ”
Should Elvis’ legacy live on?
Luhrmann’s film strives to portray Parker and the ecosystem of people who rely on Elvis’ income as the villains of this story; If they hadn’t grabbed Elvis the way he’s implying, he might have spoken more openly about the history and rights of communities from whose artistry he has benefited greatly.
“Elvis” frequently marks the passage of time through news articles and press articles. It refers to Elvis calling Fats Domino – whose debut single “The Fat Man” became a hit years before Elvis first recorded with Sam Phillips on Sun Records – as “the true king of rock ‘n’ roll”.
The film also includes a brief but resonant portrayal of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, widely considered “the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.” Luhrmann pointed to a recent Vulture interview with Yola, the genre-bending English singer-songwriter who plays Sister Rosetta in “Elvis,” who captures the tension here quite well: “The simple narration is ‘He’s the Appropriator,'” noted Yola. “No, the system is the damn appropriator.”
Luhrmann added that “there’s a big difference between pretending your art comes from a vacuum and following the journey or DNA of where your musical influence comes from.”
“It’s one of those tragedies and one of those beauties that Elvis kept saying, ‘I didn’t create that,'” Luhrmann said. “You know, ‘I saw old Arthur Crudup bang his box down in Tupelo. I thought if I could do that, I’d be a music man like no other.”