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Elvis is back in the building

Elvis is back in the building

Baz Luhrmann brings the extraordinary saga of the King’s Faustian pact with Colonel Tom Parker to the big screen – in typical maximalist style

All these years on, it is still hard to improve upon the famous words of Greil Marcus in Mystery Train (1975): 

“Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the City of Memphis…, and even a president [Nixon]…Elvis’s fantasy of freedom, the audience’s fantasy, takes on such reality that there is nothing left in the real world that can inspire the fantasy or threaten it. What is left is for the fantasy to replace the world; and that, night after night, is what Elvis and his audience make happen.”

Which is why Baz Luhrmann – master of the hyper-real and the circus-ring spectacular, reveller in the technicolour, bejewelled surface of things and in post-modern anachronism – is in many ways the ideal director to tackle the life and music of the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who became King of the World.

Elvis Presley sings and plays the piano during a recording session for RCA, circa 1956

From its very first moments, we know that Elvis (general release, 24 June) is absolutely not going to be a more-or-less naturalistic music biopic on the model of Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), Control (2007), Nowhere Boy (2009) or Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). The maximalism, pyrotechnic cinematography, gaudy palette and rollercoaster pacing – familiar from Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013) are not an indulgence, but the whole point. 

The showbiz superficiality is the point. The excess is the point. The surrealism is the point. (For an unadorned history of Presley’s life, check out Peter Guralnick’s majestic two-part biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.)

In 159 minutes, covering a cruelly foreshortened 42-year life, Elvis the movie character is not permitted an interior life any more than Elvis the global megastar was permitted the most basic freedoms of a performing artist, let alone a private person, by his muse, benefactor and jailer, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, weighed down by prosthetics, and speaking in a thick Dutch accent).

The film is less a by-the-numbers narration of Presley’s passage from hillbilly sensation to wrecked Vegas freak show than an account of the two men’s long collaboration and its terrible cost. 

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

One of its most dazzling sequences portrays Parker’s moment of epiphany at the Louisiana Hayride in 1955 as he watches Elvis essentially invent modern rock’n’roll and postwar teenage culture in a single performance: the screaming of the girls in the audience tells this veteran carny – a carnival mogul, who made his start selling candy apples – that the greatest fairground attraction in the history of the world has just materialised, and, with it, a licence to print money. “He was my destiny,” Parker tells us. No kidding.

Elvis Presley performs on stage with his brand in Tampa Florida, 1955

The casting of Austin Butler, a relative unknown whom you might recognise as Tex Watson in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, turns out to be inspired. Many actors have played Elvis, with dramatically varying success: Kurt Russell, Don Johnson, Val Kilmer, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, even Michael Shannon. But most have stumbled on the steps of accurate impersonation, ending up as little more than highly paid Elvis tribute acts.

Kurt Russell plays the king in John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979)

Butler does not aspire to absolute accuracy – though his sheer physical energy is terrific – but seeks the deeper truth of the character: the preternaturally gifted, ambitious, baffled young man from the South, longing ferociously for the heights of superstardom but completely out of his depth in the place where it took him.

Drawing heavily upon James L. Dickerson’s Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager, the movie plots a profoundly exploitative relationship that was conducted almost entirely on Parker’s terms. Born Andreas van Kuijk in June 1909, apparently in Breda, Holland, Parker reinvented himself as a native of Huntington, West Virginia, and was granted his pseudo-military title by his friend Jimmie Davis, the governor of Louisiana. 

Never taking US citizenship, embroiled with the mob and with the segregationist political bodies that kept racial integration at bay, Parker was allergic to any interaction with government or authority. This meant he was intrinsically averse to anything that would take Presley abroad (too many officials, too many borders) – a reflex that compounded his opposition to tours which he believed to be a waste of money compared to the cash machine of movie-making. Anything that meddled with the formula was vetoed (Parker even prevented Presley from playing Chance Wayne in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth).

Colonel Tom Parker chats with Ed Sullivan backstage before Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, 1956

From one perspective, the story of Elvis’s career was the story of a musician forced to make 31 mostly lousy films, at the expense of his creative development. Was the relationship between manager and star coercive? Up to a point. Few great performers have been so systematically manipulated and fleeced as Presley was. Yet, in the end, their pact was Faustian: Elvis did not resist the narcotic haze into which ‘the Colonel’ despatched him, nor question the commercial strategy that led a four-week engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas to metastasise into a seven-year residency, by the end of which the bloated, overweight Presley could barely hold the microphone.  

Austin Butler as Elvis and Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla

Elvis has its blind spots – not least its cowardly failure to deal with the fact that the singer’s wife, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Olivia DeJonge), was only 14 when he started dating her. In contrast, the movie is strong on the deep roots of his music in African-American culture – depicting the young Elvis peering in wonder into a juke joint where Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup (Gary Clark Jr) is singing That’s All Right, before racing to a revivalist tent where he immerses himself in gospel jubilation.

Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, circa 1960

We also hear Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) perform ‘Hound Dog’, Little Richard (Alton Mason) deliver an awesome rendition of ‘Tutti Frutti’ – and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr) warn his friend Presley: ​​“If you don’t do the business, the business will do you.” 

Again, however, Parker steered his charge away from associating with the very performers whose music he loved most. He nixed a planned collaboration with James Brown. And when, in April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, only a few miles from Graceland, and Presley wanted to make a statement, he was thwarted by his manager. 

Alton Mason as Little Richard

Only once did Elvis truly escape the clutches of his Svengali, in a plot twist that Luhrmann dramatises with panache. Agreeing to record a Christmas special for NBC in 1968 – his musical career now on the rocks – Presley defied Parker’s insistence upon a family-friendly festive performance, donned black leather and recovered some of the raw, rock’n’roll danger that had propelled him to the stratosphere more than a decade before. To this day, this improbable act of artistic rebellion is celebrated as one of the great American comebacks, alongside Muhammad Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ six years later.

Elvis Presley performing on the Elvis comeback TV special, 1968

Capitalism, celebrity, self-destruction, genius: Elvis incarnated them all and much more. Forty-five years since his death, his influence remains phenomenal and mythic – a cultural omnipresence that Luhrmann understands well. 

“Two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity”: thus does Parker describe himself and Presley. But what humanity was there left at the end, not least in the 20 lonely years that the Colonel lived after Elvis died? Did anyone really win, or derive happiness from, the greatest show business story of them all? In the end, the Mystery Train was all too aptly named.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Kite Festival 2023

Kite, our festival of ideas and music, returns to Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire on 9-11 June 2023. The reaction to Kite from press, industry and festival go-ers alike has been extraordinary. Here’s one from notoriously hard-to-please Backseat Mafia: “Not since the very first Latitude Festival back in 2006 has such an eclectic and ambitious programme of events been so successfully executed. At times it felt like an absorbing virtual reality trip through the pages of a Sunday supplement.”

You have until midnight on Sunday 3 July to get super early bird tickets, which are 25% off the final price.


The Offer (Paramount+, Sky Cinema)

To this day, the 92-year-old movie producer Al Ruddy refers to Clint Eastwood as “the kid” – because Eastwood was born two months later than him in 1930. To launch its new streaming service, Paramount has gone back to one of the studio’s great legends – the making of The Godfather, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, with Ruddy (Miles Teller, brilliant) as the central figure; the producer trying – somehow, anyhow – to turn Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel into a commercial movie. Much of the content of these ten episodes will be familiar to readers of Mark Seal’s wonderful Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather – but there is plenty of fresh detail and anecdote here, too. 

What makes The Offer so entertaining is the contrast between the immaculate, pitch-perfect Oscar-winning film that Francis Ford Coppola (Dan Fogler) gave to the world, and the often farcical antics that bedevilled its production – to the point where it frequently seemed that the plug would be pulled or the movie itself would be a catastrophic turkey rather than an all-time classic.

Crucial to the development process was the legendary Paramount head of production, Robert Evans (Matthew Goode), immortalised in the 2002 documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture. So too were the New York mafia bosses whose cooperation was essential if filming was to proceed (Giovanni Ribisi is terrific as Joe Colombo, head of one of the Five Families). All the movie’s most famous performers are portrayed here too, of course – Anthony Ippolito uncannily good as the young Al Pacino. If The Godfather leaves you cold, this should probably not be your next binge watch. But if you love the Corleone saga in all its operatic intensity…well, let’s just say that my only complaint about The Offer was that it was too short.

AIDS: The Unheard Tapes (27 June, BBC Two)

The late, great writer Paul Monette used to fret that the Aids epidemic would one day fade from memory and that the dead would be forgotten. At the height of the virus’s savage impact – when HIV was in the headlines daily – such collective amnesia seemed almost inconceivable. But Monette was right. The risk was, and remains real.

Much credit is due, then, to this innovative three-part documentary series from the BBC’s partnership with the Open University – a companion piece, in its way, to Russell T Davies’s hit Channel 4 drama, It’s a Sin (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 January 2021). Using never-before broadcast interviews archived in the British Library – the recordings lip-synced by actors –  AIDS: The Unheard Tapes traces the history of the disease from the death of Heaven barman Terry Higgins in 1982 to the emergence of a successful drug combination in 1996.

The testimonies are raw, shocking and humbling; portraying in terrible detail the isolation, suffering and stigma suffered by those who caught the virus and, in all too many cases, went on to die alone in sequestered wards. The use of music – especially Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) – is deft, and the editing sharp, as recollection after recollection acts as a reminder to the viewer of how bad it was. Most shocking of all are the end cards that record the deaths of those whose voices we can, at least, now hear once more.

Only Murders in the Building, Season Two (28 June, Disney+)

One of the most eccentric comic delights of 2021 returns for another 10 episodes, reuniting the sleuthing podcast trio of Charles (Steve Martin), Mabel (Selena Gomez), and Oliver (Martin Short) in the upscale Manhattan complex, the fictional Arconia. Having solved the murder of Tim Kono in Season One, the team must now hunt down the killer of the Arconia’s board president, Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell) – and deal with their podcast foe, Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), who presents a rival show, provocatively entitled Only Murderers in the Building. Their super-fans are getting more demanding; though the detectives have grown more confident, too (“You can tell this is our second season.” says Oliver). There are new characters – including Cara Delevingne as Mabel’s love interest – and, if the action ranges more broadly this time, showrunner John Hoffman keeps the focus sufficiently tight to maintain the viewer’s interest in, and affection for the three main protagonists.


The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century Jamie Susskind (Bloomsbury)

In Future Politics (2018), the barrister Jamie Susskind staked his claim to be one of the most significant writers on the new political landscape, the impact of technology and the profound ramifications for government, citizenship and human interaction. In his excellent follow-up, Susskind digs deeper, and asks why the digital giants were able to accrue such formidable and unchecked planetary power, so quickly. The answer, he concludes, is that the stage was already set by what Susskind calls “market individualism” – a profoundly vulnerable and compromised version of democracy in which the interests of business were prioritised over those of citizens (here I was reminded of John Gray’s prescient warning in the 1990s that our civic institutions were being “hollowed out” by compulsive marketisation). 

What we need, then, is a new “digital republic”, in which we are more than the sum of our transactions, a robust notion of the common good is restored, and the much-abused word “accountability” recovers its true meaning. Easier said than done, as Susskind is the first to acknowledge. But – to its considerable benefit – the book plunges into the detail of potential solutions, great and small, and is full of suggestions for intelligent regulation, codes of conduct for engineers, and means by which value-based decisions may be effectively taken. Susskind writes beautifully and his scholarship is impeccable. But this is a book for practitioners as much as thinkers, and deserves the widest possible readership.

Dark Earth – Rebecca Stott (4th Estate)

Perhaps best known for the Costa Award-winning In the Days of Rain, a memoir of her family’s entanglement in a fundamentalist sect, Rebecca Stott has also enjoyed great success as a writer of fiction. In this, her third novel, she takes us back to the Britain of the sixth century AD, deserted by the “Sun Kings” – the Romans – and, more specifically, the “Ghost City” of abandoned Londinium. The death of the Great Smith, a Saxon exiled from the court of King Osric to a Thames mudflat, leaves his daughters, Isla and Blue to fend for themselves. Though younger, Blue has the gift of supernatural sight – which is the least the two young women need as they walk through the shadows of London. The air ripples with whispers of mutiny, magic and rumours of a youthful Briton named Arthur who is rallying the tribes against the Saxons. An adventure story that is also full of historical resonance, Dark Earth  is a wonderful novel that will grip your attention and expand your imagination. 

Old Truths and New Clichés: Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by David Stromberg (Princeton University Press)

Speech, wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1966, is the “greatest gift bestowed upon humanity” and far too important to be entrusted to the censor. Instead, he celebrated the “standard-bearers of truth through speech”. What, one wonders, would he have made of the debased language of social media and the corresponding impulse to cancel, ban and deplatform language in 2022. It is a strength of these 19 essays – many of them appearing in English for the first time – that more than 30 years after the author’s death in 1991, they still seem so resonant. 

To the extent that he has a general readership at all today, the great Jewish-American writer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, is probably associated mostly with his fantastic short stories. This is a shame, as Singer was a polymath, and a 20th century Montaigne whose non-fiction is no less worthy of modern attention. Covering subjects as various as Yiddish (the language in which he continued to write after moving from Poland to New York in 1935), religion, exile, the Kabbalah and children’s literature, he is revealed in these writings – many of which began life as lectures – as an author of consummate curiosity, humanity and erudition. His defence of journalism as a fundamentally literary enterprise – he cites Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Poe and others – is a refreshing perspective in the age of clickbait and lowered expectations. Much credit is also due to David Stromberg, editor for the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust, who has retrieved these mostly forgotten texts from the author’s archive in Austin, Texas: a remarkable feat of intellectual archaeology. 


Break My Soul – Beyoncé

If I had to name my favourite Glastonbury performance, I would be hard pushed to think of anything to top Beyoncé’s extraordinary appearance on the Pyramid Stage 11 years ago. Now – in one of the drops that she herself pioneered with her self-titled fifth album in 2013 – the undisputed Queen of Pop returns with the first single from the forthcoming Renaissance (expected 29 July). Co-produced by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, ‘Break My Soul’ is a dazzling house track that samples Big Freedia and Robin S to ferocious effect, and seeks both to inspire the listener and snap us out of our lingering Covid torpor: “You said you outside but you ain’t that outside”. Rare is the floor filler that also addresses themes as big and knotty as the Great Resignation, mask-wearing, lockdown insomnia and the meaning of life post-Covid. But then this is Beyoncé, channelling the spirit of late Eighties Chicago, repurposed for the generational challenges of the planet in 2022. Break her soul? Who would even dare to try? 

Corazón: The Music of Latin America – John-Henry Crawford

In 2019, Louisiana born John Henry Crawford travelled to Mexico for the IX International Carlos Prieto Cello Competition – in which he won first prize. He also fell in love with the music and culture of Latin America, which he celebrates in his second album – recording once again with pianist Victor Santiago Asunción and recruiting the acclaimed South Korean guitarist Jiji. Shifting sharply away from the traditional cello repertoire, he takes the listener through a century and a half of Latin-American music, and the work of composers including Leo Brouwer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Carlos Guastavino, Manuel Ponce, Egberto Gismonti, and Astor Piazzolla (the centrepiece is Ponce’s Sonata in G minor). There is a pleasing blend of traditionalism and modernity to Crawford’s style: he performs on a 200-year-old cello that was smuggled out of Austria by his grandfather in 1938, but is also one of the most innovative classical musicians on social media, using his Instagram account deftly to make his creative passion accessible to more than 52k followers.

Life is Yours – Foals

Headliners on Glastonbury’s Other Stage this Friday, Foals have rolled the pitch perfectly with their seventh album. After the two-part arthouse and prog-rock pomp of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (streamable here and here) in 2019, a Brit Award for Best Group, and a third Mercury Prize nomination, the band seemed set for global domination – a dream punctured, like so many, by the pathogen. 

Instead of pretending that they are simply resuming business as usual, Foals have opted for a joyous left-turn into disco, Balearic beats and a sound that owes more to Chic than to classic indie. As front man Yannis Philippakis put it to the NME: “This is our idea of a going-out record.” Gone are the heavier tones of, say, What Went Down (2015), replaced by an unashamed festival pop hedonism. To be fair to the group, funk has always been part of their DNA – and in this album it takes over their whole bio-system. Listen out especially for ‘2001’ – ‘Lost in the sugar rush/Violet sky/Beachside candy cane/Blue tongues in summer rain’ – which sounds to me like an instant dance classic. Life is Yours may yet have a claim to be the finest thing ever written in Peckham.

Fans of pop music history can look forward to our ThinkIn with London’s First Lady of Soul, P.P. Arnold. After making her name with the immortal The First Cut is the Deepest in 1966, the list of artists she’s worked with since reads like a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll history, featuring everyone from Tina Turner and Mick Jagger, to Primal Scream and the KLF. P.P Arnold has incredible stories to tell, and she’ll be telling them in our newsroom on Thursday 12 July. 

…and finally: many thanks to Tortoise’s Operations Executive, Kat Whitfield, for this account of the Friends of Tortoise visit to the British Museum exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic (until 25 September):

“Curator Belinda Crerar walked us around the exhibition, exploring 5,000 years of feminine representation in the form of sculptures, paintings and engravings. Each object was labelled with a description of its origins and significance. We lingered for a long time on the Capitoline Venus. 

Mary Beard, one of the exhibition’s five guest collaborators, noted the longstanding dispute surrounding the marble sculpture: whether it depicts Venus Pudica (a ‘modest Venus’) or the opposite. We decided that, though we’ll never know for sure, her allure comes from the beguiling and divine ambiguity of the female form — something indefinable that one can’t quite put their finger on, but which has routinely been dissected and depicted via the male gaze for centuries. 

Regardless of the mystery, the collection succeeded in its intention by shedding light on the diversity of ways that the feminine has been celebrated, feared and (albeit often mis)understood throughout history.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images, GAB Archive/Redferns, Paramount+, Disney+, BBC, Shutterstock, British Museum