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How Baz Luhrmann depicts Elvis’s contested ties to Black artistry

Austin Butler stars as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann's musical film "Elvis," which dramatizes the singer's life and career. (Video: Warner Bros.)
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In the new Baz Luhrmann film dramatizing the life and career of Elvis Presley, a young Elvis peers into a juke joint in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., and his jaw drops. Inside, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup sings as a man and woman dance together, their bodies in sync. Elvis is spellbound, stunned into silence, then runs to a Pentecostal revival tent where he makes his way to the center of the worship service. A friend chases him and tries to pull him back, but the preacher allows Elvis to stay. This young man is “with the spirit.”

The scene pulls from a story once shared with Luhrmann by that friend: Sam Bell, who died last year at age 85. But the depiction is distinctly Luhrmann in all its striking indulgence. The Australian filmmaker frames Elvis’s spiritual awakening as a musical one, too, later employing 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 overstate enough: You can’t tell the story of Elvis Presley without telling the story of Black American rhythm and blues, Pentecostal gospel,” Luhrmann said. “It’s just completely woven in there. But I think there have been tellings of the Elvis story where that’s just kind of touched on lightly or expunged.”

Elvis,” in theaters Friday, makes a concerted effort to highlight several 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 Memphis’s Beale Street, where he hits the clubs with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

The White musical icon’s practice of drawing from the work of his Black contemporaries has for years led to arguments over whether his actions constituted appropriation, and what that means for his musical legacy. By making direct connections — such as with the “That’s All Right” scene, and another featuring Big Mama Thornton’s original rendition of “Hound Dog” — “Elvis” doesn’t necessarily dispel the debate. It instead attempts to point attention toward a shared enemy: an inequitable music industry in an unjust society, into which Elvis is thrust by his greedy, manipulative manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).

This is the framing 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 in the South created these physical barriers, but couldn’t create cultural barriers.” Growing up in poverty meant that, while White, Elvis spent his formative years among other marginalized people, according to Kernodle. He navigated “the interior of a Black community that most White people would not have even had a consciousness for, even in that area. He’s not mining just blues, but also Black gospel culture.”

The Black artists surrounding Elvis introduced him to a way of exploring the disenfranchisement he felt as a White man in poverty, Kernodle said. But the music business assigns value to certain narratives over others, and Elvis’s star rose in a White America that was “so afraid of Little Richard, of Chuck Berry.” In Luhrmann’s film, as Elvis sits enraptured by Little Richard’s performance at a Beale Street venue, B.B. King remarks that Elvis could make far more money recording the song than Little Richard ever could.

“So did he appropriate? Yes and no,” Kernodle said. “It’s not an easy question. It’s not black and white.”

Decades later, rapper Chuck D took aim at the dynamic surrounding Elvis’s work in Public Enemy’s 1989 hit “Fight the Power,” describing Elvis as a “racist” despite being “a hero to most.” While Chuck D later clarified his stance, telling the Guardian in 2014 that he “never personally had something against Elvis,” he maintained that “the American way of putting him up 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 over with this homogenized crap. So, Elvis was just the fall guy in my lyrics for all of that.”

Elvis, whom Kernodle said appealed to a post-World War II generation “rebelling against what were these norms about culture and race and gender and sexuality,” notably avoided discussing politics — even after he returned from his stint in the U.S. Army, which began in 1957. Luhrmann said he didn’t blame Chuck D for holding his opinion, but that “I don’t know if it’s fair” to make Elvis the fall guy for a racist system.

“I am not defending Elvis as a civil rights leader,” Luhrmann continued. “He was never a political creature. … Col. Tom Parker was always banging in his head from Day One, ‘Don’t talk politics.’ ”

Should Elvis's legacy live on?

Luhrmann’s film takes pains to paint Parker and the ecosystem of people relying on Elvis’s income as the villains of this story; had they not gripped Elvis as they did, it suggests, perhaps he would have been more outspoken about the history and rights of communities whose artistry he greatly benefited from.

“Elvis” frequently marks the passage of time through news articles and pressers. It references when Elvis referred to Fats Domino — whose debut single, “The Fat Man,” became a hit years before Elvis first recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Records — as “the real king of rock-and-roll.”

The film also includes a brief but resonant depiction of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, widely considered to be “the godmother of rock-and-roll.” Luhrmann pointed to a recent Vulture interview with Yola, the genre-crossing English singer-songwriter who plays Sister Rosetta in “Elvis,” as capturing the tension here quite well: “The easy narrative is ‘He’s the appropriator,’ ” Yola remarked. “No, the system’s the fricking appropriator.”

Luhrmann added that “there’s big difference between pretending that your art came out of a vacuum and following the journey or DNA of where your musical influence comes from.”

“It’s one of the tragedies and one of the beauties that Elvis was constantly saying, ‘I didn’t create this,' ” Luhrmann said. “You know, ‘I saw old Arthur Crudup bang his box way back down there in Tupelo. I thought, if I could do that, I’d be a music man like no one.’ ”