The United States of Elvis
The fate of American exceptionalism foretold
“Fame and fortune, how empty they can be…” – Elvis Presley
According to Wikipedia, Elvis Aaron Presley, aka Elvis, was born in Mississippi in January 1935, but moved to Memphis with his family in 1948, at age 13.
Purist quibbles aside, this was the Elvis pop culture formula. An explosively sensual and photogenic white singer who grew up steeped in black culture, both religious and profane, became the vehicle for an attempted commercial reconciliation of the vibrantly creative sensual energy of underground black life with the protestant repression of sexual energy that typified post-WWII white suburbia.
The resultant myth still has power. Since its June 23, 2022, theatrical release in Australia, the new “Elvis” biopic directed by Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrman has grossed $270 million in worldwide box office revenue, the second highest-grossing music biopic of all-time. It received a twelve-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
The film is a colorfully kaleidoscopic fever dream that sheds more heat than light by focusing obsessively on Presley’s fraught relationship with his huckster manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Hanks in heavy latex makeup.) who was literally a circus barker before discovering Elvis. Austin Butler, in spite of his occasional eerie facial resemblance to Presley, also struggles in the lead with his memetic version of Presley’s raw carnality, but the movie is nonetheless revelatory in two completely unintentional ways.
First, because Luhrman desperately wants the film to have historical political importance, he assiduously documents the social upheaval, turbulent protest politics and serial assassinations of the 1960’s and 1970’s in an all-out effort to imbue the events of Presley’s life and career with larger significance via temporal association.
Second, the movie’s unflinching portrayal of Presley’s ignominious decline and de facto suicide by prescription drug overdose foreshadows the future arc of the seemingly suicidal and drug addled US imperium, which in 2021 had a historic high 20.4 million people suffering from drug addiction and 100,306 overdose deaths.
It is easy to sympathize with Luhrman’s desire to link the phenomenon that was Elvis with the chaotic, often violent rise of the freshly minted US empire. Even today, the two US public properties most visited by tourists every year are the White House, followed by Presley’s Graceland mansion, now a museum, in Memphis. It is a fitting symbiosis – twin political and pop culture Capitols built along the treacherously rocky banks of the Potomac on one hand, and the muddy, unstable banks of the Mississippi on the other.
Whatever the film’s shortcomings, it is using Presley’s life to chronicle an extraordinary historical period that is worthy of renewed attention given the sharp decline of the US in the half century since his death.
WALKING IN MEMPHIS
Then I'm walking in Memphis
Was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?
Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered 'round his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room
From “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn
When Presley made his first recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis in 1954, less than a decade after the end of WW II, US GDP was about $2.9 trillion. In 2019, it was almost $21 trillion based on constant national prices per Federal Reserve Economic Data.
At the beginning of Presley’s career, the emerging US imperium was in its nuclear powered infancy. Only 55.7% of US households had a television, overwhelmingly black and white. By the time of his death in 1977, more than 97% had TVs, overwhelmingly color.
From 1956 to 1964, the majority of the US interstate highway system was also built. Called America’s 41,000-Mile Superhighway, it connected the nation geographically in a way that matched its new electronic interconnectedness.
Between 1945 and 1960, US GDP more than doubled, launching what has been called “the Golden Age of American Capitalism.” The largest middle class in history enjoyed wealth unimagined by royalty of yore, prompting Lewis Lapham to update Thorstein Veblen’s classic 19th century “Theory of the Leisure Class” to a theory of the “Leisure State.”
Luhrman’s camerawork, lavish sets, garish lighting and frenetic pacing spare no cinematic flourish trying to bring the fevered pitch of this historic and disruptive period to life through the persona of Elvis. Although his success is mixed, the movie is sometimes a visual feast.
In addition to being almost exclusively white, the new Leisure Society Luhrman is trying to capture was being created at the cost of suffocating conformity, racial segregation, sexual repression, nuclear proliferation and a corporatized ethos of industrial scale orderliness. The two decades from the start of WW II were lethal for Eros in mainstream US society.
Left behind economically since the Civil War, black culture developed on a separate track where the enormous life affirming creative energy of Eros was celebrated even, perhaps especially, in tough times. Think, for example, of the Harlem Renaissance emerging in the midst of the Great Depression, or the Delta music scene with its proliferation of blues and jazz thriving for decades amidst rural poverty and in backwater Mississippi river towns far outside mainstream white culture.
The appearance of Elvis offered white society, especially hormonal white teenagers growing up in unprecedented middle class wealth and connected for the first time nationwide via television, records, movies and interstate freeways, a form of entrée into the sensual richness of forbidden black culture.
Presley’s earliest performances pulsated with almost messianic sexual energy, activating a primal desire for the release of suppressed youthful sexuality. He rose from the impoverished Mississippi delta to global stardom by mixing black and white musical forms in a sexually charged fusion that continues to inspire much popular music today.
Parker immediately understood the enormous commercial potential of the sexual energies released by Presley’s gyrating, pelvic stage persona, guiding his career with a carnie’s instinct for showmanship into the first global postwar celebrity brand. The emotional and sexual power embodied by Elvis inspired the Beatles among others. As John Lennon famously opined after hearing Heartbreak Hotel for the first time, "Nothing affected me until I heard Elvis. Without Elvis, there would be no Beatles.”
THE KING IN CHAINS
In what Richard Brody of the New Yorker calls “an act of cinematic aggression” that reduces the film to a misguided but “gaudily decorated Wikipedia entry,” Luhrman makes Parker the nefarious heavy who fatally constricted Presley’s career at every turn by suppressing his most expansive artistic ambitions and his desire to engage openly with the turbulent political events of the time, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
Played by Tom Hanks, the character of Parker is buried in make up so thick the Chicago Tribune describes it as “prosthetic rent-a-jowls” that place one of America’s greatest actors in a “straitjacket.”
Luhrman places Elvis in a similar straitjacket in which Parker’s outsized influence turns Presley into a kind of wealthy and famous man-boy whose deep sympathy and desire to engage publicly with the most consequential political issues of the day are blunted by Parker.
Many first hand accounts paint the reality of their relationship as much more complex. Parker was clearly a greedy, manipulative con artist, but he was also a unique kind of marketing genius who made a fortune for Presley while transforming him into a global star during their 20 year relationship.
Other accounts make it clear that while their relationship was fraught, it had its own kind of unusual equilibrium. Relying on Parker to be the omnipresent villain in Presley’s pubic rise and descent does a disservice to the complexity of the story.
In spite of his desire for artistic greatness, Presley was never able to rise above the carnivalesque trappings of a career fashioned as much by his own appetites and lack of vision as by Parker’s sucker-born-every-minute midway instincts.
WE’RE CAUGHT IN A TRAP
The intimate sexual, musical and cultural power of Presley’s earliest live performances, which are energetically captured in the Luhrman film, were in inverse proportion to their elemental staging. That power declined steadily over the last years of his life, dwarfed and deformed, often grotesquely, by the ever increasing size, gaudiness and needless complexity of his performance spectacles, venues and staging.
The parallels with the post-War US are striking, the transformation in real historical time of a fresh, vibrant life into a caricatured spectacle, ultimately reduced to a tragic, drug addicted global star fatally insulated by his own wealth and haunted by a lack of existential meaning and direction.
In a still young 21st century, America is defined by pandemic and apocalyptic climate alarmism, with “scientists” and “experts” seemingly everywhere, like Luhrman’s domineering Colonel Tom Parker, advising, cajoling and ultimately threatening early death and/or social ostratization as punishment for deviance from officially sanctioned cures.
At the same time, the largest US banks and corporations are bloated with tens of trillions in pandemic “stimulus” courtesy of the Federal Reserve Bank and US Treasury, the largest de facto bailout of the wealthy in human history. (See my six part Covidnomics series for an in depth exploration of the financial and political costs.)
At the other end of the spectrum, more than a million people have died of drug overdoses in the US during the past 20 years, the majority due to opioids such as meth and more recently, fentanyl. The Covid pandemic has accelerated this problem into its own epidemic as US poverty has simultaneously increased by the largest percentage in 50 years.
If the US, with its record $14.4 billion dollar (Plus $1 billion in “dark money.”) virtual election spectacles, historic $800 billion 2022 “defense” budget and $30 trillion national debt, the highest since 1946, is not yet the “fat Elvis,” it seems to be on the same suicidal trajectory.