Will “Elvis” Bring Back Elvis?
Elvis is ready for another comeback. Over the years, he’s been accused of a host of sins, including racism and cultural appropriation. For many, his enduring legacy is one of personal excess and weirdness — lavish spending, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, an obsession with collecting police badges, an addiction to drugs, and a lot more.
I view him as a brilliant artist who practically invented rock and roll. But I grew up with his music. I began to learn about him during his glorious comeback of the late 1960s. My Elvis wore black leather and oozed danger. He sang songs of deep hurt (“Suspicious Minds”) and quiet introspection (“Kentucky Rain”). Over the years, I grew to appreciate his impact on music and popular culture. Every musician I cared about cited Elvis as a life-changing force.
But I consider myself in a shrinking minority. I wonder how many Gen Zers (the generation born after 1997) know who Elvis is beyond a vague memory of his music being in Lilo and Stitch? He doesn’t appear to resonate with the Millennial audience (born between 1982 and 1997). That’s a problem. Together, Gen Z and Millennials account for 62 percent of the world’s population. They also literally define the future. Will Elvis be part of that future?
This is where Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming biopic, Elvis, comes into play. I just watched the trailer for the film, which premiers on June 24, and boy, does it look splashy.
I would have expected nothing less from Luhrmann, who specializes in over-the-top productions such as Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. The movie sure looks promising. Austin Butler shows flashes of Elvis’s charisma and sex appeal. Elvis comes across like a prodigy gifted with something like holy powers, who soars like a meteor in a blaze of energy. Luhrmann bathes Elvis in a luminous glow as he seduces screaming, adoring fans by swiveling his hips onstage. He looks perfectly suited for the age of Instagram and TikTok. But that’s just me. I have no idea what’s going to happen on June 24, the moment of truth when people decide to pay money to see the movie.
A movie like Elvis matters. Movies can rewrite history by reintroducing us to an artist in a different context. When that happens, the artist can regain a newfound appreciation especially among contemporary audiences. As a result, the value of the artist’s brand can skyrocket, boosting sales of music and merchandise. We’ve seen this phenomenon happen time and again: with the release of The Doors, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rocket Man, among other biopics. The surviving members of Queen have reportedly made £20.17 million between them since the release of Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018. The movie has also made the band arguably more popular and respected than they were when lead singer Freddie Mercury was alive. During the band’s peak years, Queen was despised by many a rock critic who found their music to be bombastic. When Queen played its triumphant set at Live Aid, the band’s recorded music, while still popular, was slumping. But Bohemian Rhapsody reclaimed Queen’s narrative — gloriously. Today Queen is cooler than ever, especially with younger audiences.
I don’t know about Elvis, though. The best aspects of Elvis world — his cultural impact and his musical legacy — are appreciated by music fans. But how do you make cultural and musical impact matter at a time when people flit from songs to song on Spotify and form impressions of an entire body of work within seconds? He’s also a fashion icon as the forever trendy David Bowie is — in fact, Elvis influenced Bowie. So, that’s a way into beginning to understand him in the digital age, where first impressions are precious. I can easily see Luhrmann amplifying Elvis Style.
But Gen Z does respond to powerful musical moments. Music that uplifts. Music that soars and fills a room. An amped up “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock” has that kind of potential in Luhrmann’s hands. Of couse, so does “Suspicious Minds.” The quieter show stopper “In the Ghetto” could make him more relevant to contemporary audiences by showing his socially conscious side.
I doubt Luhrmann will dwell on the worst parts of Elvis. Why should he? The horrible underbelly of Elvis is alive and well. The Myth of Fat Elvis endures. But then, there’s the power of movies. Never discount that.
Will we see the triumphant return of the King in 2022? Will Elvis reshape the narrative? Follow the money to find out. The merchandise sales. The music sales. The streams. And then follow who is spending the money.
When I start seeing kids walking the aisles of Target wearing Elvis hoodies and tees, I’ll know he is back. All Elvis needs is a way in. A tee. A knit cap. A tchotchke at Hot Topic. From there, someone will explore his music.
Anything to keep the legacy alive.