Who was the real Elvis Presley?

Austin Butler uncannily emulates Presley in a performance likely to make the actor a household name. The film portrays the singer’s meteoric rise, and shows Parker taking half of his earnings, and being prompt to head off any potential problems. When there is a furore about Presley’s hip movements, he cajoles the musician into creating a more family-friendly performing style. When Elvis wants to go on an international tour, it’s Parker who lines up the legendary Las Vegas residency. Presley’s frustrations are sated by his bank balance, even as he famously puts on weight, and his star begins to wane. 

The biopic veers away from delving into Elvis’s relationship with Priscilla Presley, focussing on his career and, interestingly, his relationship with the black community. Elvis was born impoverished, and grew up in the mostly black neighbourhood of Tupelo, Mississippi. He grew up around black people, and by the time he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, he was such a big fan of black music that he covered the songs he heard. He was friends with the blues singer songwriter BB King, played in the film by Kelvin Harrison Jr. 

Within this framework, the film claims that Elvis was instrumental in helping black people get equal rights in the US. It does this through Parker’s narration, who acts as a mouthpiece for an idea formulated by Michael T Bertrand in his book Race, Rock and Elvis. Bertrand contends that by singing songs hitherto attributed to black musicians, Elvis helped white southerners rethink their attitude to race, leading to an unacknowledged (well, at least until Luhrmann’s film) impetus for white people to support the civil rights movement. 

“Elvis represented a generation that came up at a time when there was a lot of change going on in the South,” Bertrand, who is also a professor of history at Tennessee State University, tells BBC Culture. “One of the changes was to do with the evolution of black radio programming, and in the late 1940s teenagers like Elvis were tuning in [which gave them] a different type of perspective concerning race within a segregated society. As Elvis gets older, he has an appreciation of African-American culture and was drawn to black music in a way his grandparents would not have been. As he became popular, Elvis showed that it was ‘okay’ [for white people] to appreciate black culture.

“Elvis and his peers in the South are the first white kids consuming rhythm and blues. That’s a breakthrough, and there were huge ramifications in that,” adds the author. In his view, rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis “introduced a larger audience and a larger group of people to a culture that had been behind the veil of segregation. It opened up society in a positive way”.

Elvis’s contribution was through his actions rather than any big public statement, Bertrand believes. “I don’t think Elvis was political in the sense that he would go on marches and things like that. These musicians were worried about their careers first and did not make political statements. They made their statements with their choice of music. In the context of the segregation they lived under, that was a major statement. In the 50s, many rhythm and blues artists said they were happy Elvis opened doors because the music became accessible. The problem was that because he was white, he had accessibility to venues that some of his colleagues and contemporaries did not.”

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