2020s

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’: Redefining the Superstar Through the Impersonator

After watching Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis for the first time, I thought someone turned the lights out. Something wasn’t right, as even my sister — who was not that big of an Elvis Presley fan at all — had a dumbfounded look on her face. She had seen something larger than life. After leaving the movie theater, where a few of us were present to see a film about a long-dead rock’n’roll star, we both knew our lives would be changed forever.

Underneath all of Elvis’ glamour, costumes and historical accuracy is a story about male fragility and masculinity; a tale about how the show business ate its children, and how a performance so terrifyingly astounding could break a theater apart, even when it emulated another dead celebrity’s performance.

Elvis isn’t a biopic — it’s a testament to the power of fandom, stardom and art. Choosing the dreamboy Disney darling Austin Butler — who tears his skin like a shapeshifter to embody not just the features, but the heart and soul of a man possessed with music, fame and misery — was as great a choice as anything Baz Luhrmann did previously.

Luhrmann has always been obsessed with beautifully fragile heroes that are as melodramatic as they are nonchalant. He doesn’t care for defying stereotypes of movie stars because his actors emerge from the heart of what it traditionally means to be a movie star. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire are by no means subtly beautiful people. They were born for grandeur and sexual power, fledging between utter meltdowns and sexual awakenings. It didn’t come as a surprise that Butler had the same effect on a 30-something-woman that DiCaprio had before on a wide-eyed nine-year-old in the movie theater. Coincidence? No, Baz Luhrmann! That would be the key.

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With Elvis, many praises should be given where they’re due to the costume designers, sound department, cinematographer and choreographer, but none of this would have worked if not for Butler’s haunting, sexual performance. It’s all about the actor’s ability to mold into Elvis — a mysterious breed of queerness and manhood, a rebellion to the times and yet a faithful representation of them. Bordering on sincerity and ridiculousness, Elvis is without a doubt one of the most mesmerizing figures in pop culture history. He is loathed and worshipped. He was an icon of rebellious American youth culture at a time when nauseating terms such as familial values and sanctity were used to oppress true and alternative art. Elvis’ gender fluidity challenged what it meant to be masculine and feminine. He had a voice as deep as a bullhorn, and blue eyes that sparkled with long, thick lashes and piercing gazes. Elvis was on the fringes of what it meant to be soft or gruff. As this man sang, people weren’t certain whether he was just “manning up” or in need of a hug.

Butler, who wears pink and black sequins in Elvis and used heavy eye makeup to accentuate his piercing blue eyes, becomes not an impersonator, but an engulfing figure with a life of his own. After watching the film, I went home and watched every version of “Trouble” that Elvis performed. They all seemed familiar but none of them fully align with Butler’s interpretation. In Elvis, it’s as if the subject had risen from the grave, had a makeover, drank from a Benjamin Button-like fountain and then went back onstage and performed. It’s as if the man and the child had become one; a form of Christian presence where the body of Christ is present, remaining and nourishing. It’s as if the soul of Presley had given his approval and blessed the son standing at the altar of music. 

Lurhmann’s Elvis captures what it’s like to be a woman, to cum at a concert just by observing a man on stage. The film pays homage to a young and fearless Southern individual who had been bullied all his life for being true to himself, a performer who let music seep through his body, creating mayhem onstage and sending audiences into frantic, ritualistic dances. The real Elvis was both a lamb and a wolf; he was a god for women offering their safety and conservatism while also being the fair maiden sacrificed at their altar. By being an ethereal figure that was both hunter and prey, masculine and feminine, Elvis defied gravity. His wiggle represents a big slap to the face of safe art, family-friendly creations and conforming artists. And through the flesh, blood, and vocal cords of Butler, our modern world is lucky enough to witness a new version of Elvis.

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In an online forum, someone casually said, “Have you seen his eyes? Who knew Elvis looked so haunted?” I had to go back to YouTube and see for myself how Butler looked up at the cameras with thick lashes and droopy lids, as if he was the culmination of years spent in hiding, years carving a way through roles that were meant for someone else. It was as if through Butler, people who had no clue about Elvis — or had only heard about him through their parents and grandparents — were creating their version of the film’ subject, a handsome, dark and gender-bending young man who was both bigger than life and a delicate mess.

It suddenly occurred to me that what fascinated all these people who went to Elvis not knowing what to expect was not the perfect portrayal of the King of Rock and Roll, but rather another version of a celebrity — a young man, sexual and queer, challenging and cowering in fear from a stampede of horny young women. Butler recreated a legend by intensifying his subject’s energy and allowing people to live in the moment.

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Luhrmann has rightfully received credit for not creating a biopic in the style of Ray (2004), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) or Rocketman (2019), as he doesn’t provide a simple analysis of Elvis’ life through a sympathetic lens. Luhrmann positions the audience as a member of a crowd witnessing a miracle, absorbed by stage frenzy and celebrity energy, and cornered with the decaying figure of an entertainer who who was used and abolished by the insurmountable business powers behind him.

At the end of the day, Luhrmann’s Cirque du Soleil hasn’t come to an end; the director remains as fresh as ever with Elvis. As for Mr. Butler — well, his artistic journey has seemingly just begun. And the whole world will witness the power of his stardom.

Jaylan Salman (@Jaylan Salman) is a young, Egyptian feminist who believes firmly in gender equality and racial diversity. She is a film critic, poet, translator and a novelist. Her first short story collection “Thus spoke La Loba” was published in 2016 by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture after winning a national prize, coming first place and gaining critical acclaim. One of her poems “Poof, Vagina” won first prize in the “Bleed on the Page” competition held by “TheProse.com.” Her writing contributions include various international and local publications, including ZEALnyc, Africiné, Guardian Liberty Voice, Elephant Journal, Synchronized Chaos and many more.