Before being buried, for real, in the gardens of Graceland, his home in Memphis, Elvis Presley (1935-1977) had been buried for the first time under a heap of turnips. Between 1958 and 1969, two dozen feature films, most of them appallingly mediocre, got the better of his semi-godlike status. Salacious but family comedies, Des filles, encore des filles (1962), Tickle me (1965) or Micmac au Montana (1968) had erased Mystery Train, Heartbreak Hotel or Hound Dog, the titles by which Elvis had offered his person, incarnation from rock’n’roll, to the planet.

Ironically, it is through cinema that the King is resurrected once again, in a long celebration that pretends to suddenly embrace the life of a poor child from the southern United States who has become an icon (painted by Andy Warhol , sculpted by Madame Tussauds), but which, in reality, proposes, like a theater director once again resuming Oedipus King, the reading of a myth. Taking his ease with history, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis evades the role of cinema in the construction and demolition of this myth. However, it is essential and worth revisiting.

Elvis makes Presley a hero touched by divine grace – we will see little Elvis go into a trance among the faithful of an African-American revival – who must constantly confront the evil forces that want to bring him back to the hell of commerce and conformism, embodied by Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, a sinister figure whom his interpreter, Tom Hanks, pushes to the borders of abjection.

Series of sacrileges

To evoke Presley’s acting career after his return from military service in 1958, Baz Luhrmann and his cohort of screenwriters content themselves with a brief montage which appears as a series of sacrileges which make the king of rock’n’roll a bland young first surrounded by no less smooth young women (we see him, among other things, holding a stick horizontally in front of a blue background, framed by two beauties in bikinis, just to evoke the pleasures of water skiing). However, the career of Elvis Presley on the screen had begun under other auspices.

The four films he made before 1958 (Love Me Tender, Frenzied Love, Le Rock du Bagne and Bagarres au King Creole) offered a completely different image. In Le Rock du Bagne, by Richard Thorpe, Elvis, a delinquent who discovers his talents during a stay in prison, is arrogant, violent, dangerous. It can be as naive and moving as in Frenzied Love, directed by Hal Kantner in 1957, which takes up certain elements of his biography (the hero is a music-loving truck driver). If Elvis Presley professed a boundless admiration for the giants of African-American music, starting with the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, his heroes were called Marlon Brando and James Dean.

However – and in this Baz Luhrmann’s film is not far from reality – Colonel Parker had no desire to see his foal die young or become a figure of the protesting intelligentsia. Working with the old producer Hal B. Wallis (the one from Casablanca), Parker preferred to place his client under the thumb of experienced directors, first of all of the first rank (Thorpe or Michael Curtiz, who directed Bagarres au King Creole) , then simple jobbers, like Norman Taurog, who directed Elvis in a dozen cheap, mediocre and profitable films. The cinema had become so deadly for the King that it was through television, the famous special shot for NBC in 1968, which for a time regained its primacy.

object of derision

It was also television that became interested in Elvis. While Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and James Brown have all been the subject of a filmed biography intended for the big screen, the King remained, until Luhrmann’s film, material for television and film. series. The first of these productions, Le Roman d’Elvis, by John Carpenter, was broadcast in 1979 before being released in theaters in Europe. Played by Kurt Russell (who, as a child, had replied – and kicked – to Presley in Blondes, brunettes and redheads), the King regains his grace and physical power. Later, he will take on the features of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (yes, Henry VIII in The Tudors) in a miniseries.

On the big screen, Presley remained an object of derision for a long time, whether he served as the model for a band of bloodthirsty gangsters dressed as Elvis, led by Kevin Costner in Destination Graceland, or a comedy revisiting the interview at the on which occasion, in 1970, Richard Nixon made this great drug addict an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (Elvis

So we are ready to forgive Baz Luhrmann for many things: the somewhat fragile grace of Austin Butler, who does not account for the threat that Presley posed to the established order; the visual overload that better suits the splendor of Las Vegas than the purity of the original rock’n’roll. His Elvis is also cinema’s act of contrition for an artist who almost lost his soul in front of the cameras.

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