“Elvis” – An Acknowledgement of Black Influence in the Making of Elvis Presley
Written by: Rohini Pillay
After watching Elvis (2022) in theaters, I have nothing but outstanding and ineffable remarks. Elvis is a biopic directed by Baz Luhrmann and co-written by Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner, and Luhrman himself. Baz Luhrman is a widely-known and skillful auteur, directing pivotal adaptations of popular musicals and literature such as Rome + Juliet (1996), Australia (2008), The Great Gatsby (2013), and most famously Moulin Rouge (2001). In a true Luhrman fashion, the audience is transported into the life of Elvis Presley through skillful cinematography, editing, and non-diegetic music. Luhrman creates a vicarious experience for the audience, conveying a level of dissociation and fragmentation, reflective of Elvis’ own drug abuse. Luhrman masterfully utilizes fast-paced editing, non-diegetic music, composition, as well as other elements of formalism to create a flamboyant and theatrical approach to the film.
Furthermore, the film is enhanced by the talented Austin Butler who took the role of Elvis. In preparation for the role, Butler not only visited Graceland but Priscilla Presley herself. However, I would argue that one of the most salient aspects of this film which has been called “the film of the decade” was its enhancement of Black voices, highlighting the salience of black-influenced music in the creation of Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley (1935-1977) is still commonly referred to as “the King of Rock n’ Roll”, a name that strikes dissenting opinions. Rock n’ Roll is a genre of music that is heavily influenced by Black American music such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel. Elvis proved to be a controversial figure through the 50s and 60s for his rock n’ roll style of music and “loose” dance movements which inspired the infamous nickname “Elvis the Pelvis”. His style of music and dance proved to be unacceptable as they were inspired by black culture and blurred the lines of segregation which inevitably resulted in his departure to serve in World War ll. By modern standards, Elvis has been accused of “appropriating” black music and culture. The film addresses Elvis’ musical inspirations which have been seen as an amalgamation of rhythm and blues as well as country. The film also highlights the influence of black artists such as B.B King, Big Mama Thornton, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe on Elvis Presley. The film portrays the black voices behind Elvis’ sound, portraying their salience in hits such as “Hound Dog” and “Tutti Frutti”. The film further establishes the connection Elvis possessed toward black culture, having grown up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Mississippi as well as often visiting Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The film further highlighted important historic civil rights events such as the death of Martin Luther King.
However, the film still proved to spark a level of controversy as it did not include Black dissent surrounding Elvis. Several famed Black artists such as Ray Charles and Little Richard expressed opinions surrounding Elvis’ utilization of black music and culture. Ray Charles expressed his view that Elvis’ race greatly helped his success in the music industry. Elvis was considered a musical sensation and helped popularize rock n’ roll and soul music to white audiences while singers such as Nat King Cole were thrown off stage for performing similar musical hits (Desta). Little Richard further testifies that race was a factor in popularity at the time. Lastly, in recent years Big Mama Thornton’s earnings from her hit “Hound Dog” were compared to Elvis’ and revealed that her earnings were a measly amount.
Elvis proved to be a critically acclaimed film that did not just tackle Elvis’ personal troubles but also established the importance of Black influence in Elvis’ sound and generally in rock n roll. The film included hit songs by black artists such as Doja Cat which paid homage to Big Mama Thornton. However, it may have not provided an objective point of view, painting Elvis in a benevolent light in regards to remaking and being influenced by Black music. However, the film highlights the importance of cultural appropriation versus appreciation from a modern standpoint as well as solidifies the importance of acknowledging the influence of other cultures in the making of music and general media, dismantling a Eurocentric viewpoint.
The IB film course at BISB allows for students to analyze films from different standpoints, taking into account the cinematography, lighting, screenwriting, sound, and other variables while also referring to the cultural and historical significance of the film. The IB film course encourages Year 12 and 13 students to expand and utilize their knowledge of film outside of the classroom and analyze contemporary pieces of work. Over the last year, Year 12 students have learned about Auteur Theory, focusing on directors such as Tim Burton and Baz Luhrmann.