Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film Elvis stands out from other biopics in that, rather than simply laying out the details of tis title character’s life, it works to make you empathise not just with him but the people around him. An early scene that lets you know this will be great is when Luhrmann slows everything down to get you to understand exactly why girls screamed at his concerts. But my favourite scene in the movie is when Elvis is performing his first Vegas show. Nothing it introduces is, technically, new; our very first sighting of Presley was him backstage, trying to psyche himself up for a stage performance, and the “That’s All Right” scene simply shows him doing that with both the first time he saw the song played and the first time he recorded it himself as he performs it as a massive number. The movie has also frequently used flashbacks, montage, and a sonic kaleidoscope to convey the past intruding on the present and the future imprinting on the past; lines literally echoing in the audience’s ears as they prove to be true.
This is something more though. The movie switches between “Big Boy” Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr), young Elvis, and Vegas Elvis in a manner that’s flowing without ever being predictable, before interpolating them all on top of each other. It’s already a pretty great song given three powerful performances, and the crew make their connections between these performances seamless, even their natural state of being. The clips are practically dancing before us; one of my favourite bits is when we watch young Elvis enthusiastically strumming his guitar, and the camera spins in a complete circle around him as both sight and sound smoothly shift from his cheery little guitar-and-piano number into the glitz and glamour of Vegas. It’s not tacky or fake the way we can often associate with Vegas, and it’s not even ostentatious – it’s a part of this song and of Elvis that can finally be fully expressed. A communal, sensual experience.
It’s when all three performances are onscreen at once that this kicks into a spiritual cinematic experience on par with the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. This isn’t just a communal experience within that room – it’s a communal experience across time and space. I do believe in the existence and immorality of cultural appropriation; that it’s possible to take the works of others and either cynically or incompetently pervert them (I also definitely believe in the unfair economic disparity between white and black artists – the movie itself has BB King cynically point out that Elvis will make more money covering Little Richard than Little Richard will ever make from his own songs, the full meaning of which is lost on the singer). But I also believe it’s possible for two very different people to access the same spiritual place – that the same humanity can be expressed in billions of unique variations.
Human beings have the innate ability of seeing that spirit in things, and some of us are addicted to feeling it and have a deep gaping need to make others feel it too. Some of the hackiest works are made by artists so overwhelmed by the magic they saw that they have trouble processing it and sending it back out. Elvis was one of those artists blessed with the ability to not just see magic but to weave it together into his own, and Elvis shows what that process feels like from the inside; as I was thinking about and writing this essay, it occurred to me that I could feel the resonance not just with how I try to channel the soul of a work in my critical essays, but in the way my essays themselves are attempting to channel the critics I admired before I started writing. That ability to see the spirit in things is what drives people to be Icons, and it’s common to the point of triteness to say that chasing that Iconic status often robs people of their humanity. I think the ultimate unique idea of the film is that the things that actually make us icons are the same things that make us human. When Elvis enters the dark fuckin’ period of its subject’s life, his singing voice retreats further and further from the soundtrack, letting us know that he’s no longer Elvis.