Whatever else the American Dream may be, it is certainly fascinating. Even foreigners are enthralled by it, and occasionally—perhaps because of their detachment—they offer us remarkable insights like those of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Similarly, it is no coincidence that the most unrestrained adaptation of The Great Gatsby is the work of an Australian, Baz Luhrmann, nor is it a coincidence that he chose the life of Elvis Presley to be the stuff of his latest film.
The basic story of Elvis—progressing from hopeful Tennessee youth to Hollywood star to corpulent Vegas tragedy—lives vividly in America’s popular consciousness, as does, to a lesser extent, the story of his attendant cast of characters now infamously known as the “Memphis Mafia.” But of these latter characters, Luhrmann’s “Elvis” focuses on one in particular, Elvis’ manager, who went by the dubious title and assumed name, Colonel Tom Parker.
Certainly, Parker’s relationship with Elvis (often critically and legally characterized as exploitative) has been the subject of previous media attention as, for instance, in the 1993 TV movie, “Elvis and the Colonel: The Untold Story.” But in “Elvis,” Luhrmann elevates Parker to the rank of dark twin to the King, going so far as to make him the narrator of the story, now a sort of dyadic saga.
In this new take on the Elvis story, our titular hero is presented familiarly as an all-American symbol of youth with a charming voice who serves in the army and later longs to go on an international tour. By contrast, Parker is presented as a haggard illegal alien posing as a veteran with a muculent Dutch accent desperate to stay in the country (ostensibly, for lack of a passport). But the film’s contrariety of elements does not stop there. Rather, contraries and their contradictions are the driving force of the plot.
Parker initially identifies and finds success in managing Elvis precisely because he is a white performer who can offer black rhythms to otherwise scandalized audiences. So, for these audiences, he sings gospel and spirituals, though while engaging in crotch-histrionics, which he distressingly realizes after an attempt at staging a family friendly performance is inextricably part of his popular appeal (and in a deeper sense, himself).
At last, in lieu of breaking away from his home to go an international tour, faced with the paradoxical dilemma (as far as he was concerned) of being perpetually broke despite being extraordinarily profitable, Elvis reconciles himself to making a home of Las Vegas’ International Hotel.
To make the significance of these interrelated contradictions clear, Luhrmann gives Parker lines so very camp—since “Moulin Rouge!” Luhrmann’s penchant for defying subtlety has not diminished—that they touch on the language of myth. (Perhaps it’s not for nothing that Allen Ginsburg once commended the screenplay’s coauthor, Jeremy Doner, to persevere in his writing.)
For instance, Parker’s narration affirms of a woman enthralled by Elvis’ wiggling that she was experiencing “a taste of Forbidden Fruit”; that on seeing him perform, he knew Elvis was his “destiny”; and that at a particularly decisive performance, “Elvis the Man was sacrificed and Elvis the God was born.” Moreover, in the film’s last act, in a scene where Parker struggles to reconcile with Elvis, he says, “We are the same, you and I. We are two odd lonely children reaching for eternity.
But insofar as Parker and Elvis were one another’s destiny, the American Dream was their fate.
The bulk of “Elvis” is set in the latter half of the 20th century, in the midst of postwar affluence and the rise of the counterculture generation. In a scene depicting the development of the “’68 Comeback Special,” taking place in the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination, a frustrated Elvis rejects Parker’s dictates. In lieu of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” he sings, “If I Can Dream,” a pastiche of MLK’s immortal speech, crying out for a “better land, where all my brothers walk hand in hand,” concluding, “Let it come true right now—Oh, yeahhh!” Thus, Luhrmann depicts the beginning of that chapter in American history where religion, no longer hip enough to be efficiently commercialized, is for better or worse succeeded by political protest. (At the close of the scene, Parker concedes it was a great business move.)
The America of “free love” wanted to have its cake and eat it too: Christmas specials and something a bit more salacious than carols; salvation and wild sex; convictions and corporate excess; national pride and international predilections, etc. So, Luhrmann’s Elvis begins dressed in rags wandering into revival tents, shaking wildly to the Holy Spirit.
But by the time Elvis reaches Vegas in immaculate Rococo jumpsuits and ersatz blue-black hair, he wonders why he isn’t quite happy. He resolves to return to his roots, but he can’t bear to actually do that. So, he rehashes the gospel rhythms of his youth aided by drugs and showgirls then pitches his new-and-improved revival tent in the City of Sin with the aim of pleasing its most devout pilgrims. And—surprise, surprise—he doesn’t find the happiness he was looking for.
Near the end of the film, addressing the audience, and more broadly, the American people, with the second person plural, “you,” Parker’s narration soars into pontifical accusation—the gist being that the tragedy of Elvis is on our hands: Elvis so loved us that he arose out of Memphis, Tennessee and sacrificed himself to become a dying god, the King of Rock and Roll.
The yearnings of postwar America could not cohere. But in the film’s last scene, where a pill-addled, bloated Elvis belts out “I’ll be coming home . . . God speed your love to me” as interview footage begins to play with Elvis saying, “when I was a child . . . I was a dreamer . . . Every dream that I ever dreamed has come true”—though the result by all reason should be kitsch and even darkly comic—it isn’t. Somehow, despite the contradictions, or perhaps because of them, Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is a movie that shows like no other our national descent into farce and the survival of the American Dream.