Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis features a scene based on real-life conversations between Elvis Presley and Steve Binder, director of the 1968 NBC television special, which signaled the singer’s return to live performance.
Binder, a rebel unimpressed by Presley’s recent work, pushed Elvis to turn to his past to revive a career stalled by years of mediocre films and soundtrack albums. According to the director, their exchange of views forced the performer to plunge into deep thought.
The trailer for Luhrmann’s biopic plays out a version of this back and forth motion: Elvis, played by Austin Butler, says to the camera, “I have to get back to who I really am.” Two frames later, Dacre Montgomery, who plays Binder, asks, “Who are you, Elvis?”
As a Southern history scholar who wrote a book about Elvis, I still ask myself the same question.
Presley never wrote a memoir. He also did not keep a diary. Once, when he was informed about a possible biography in the work, he expressed doubt that there was something to tell. Over the years he has given numerous interviews and press conferences, but the quality of these exchanges has been erratic, often characterized by superficial answers to even more superficial questions.
His music may have been a window into his inner life, but since he was not a songwriter, his material depended on the words of others. Even rare pearls of revelation – songs like “If I Can Dream”, “Different Ways” or “My Way” – did not fully penetrate the veil that envelops a person.
Thus, Binder’s philosophical inquiry was not merely philosophical. Countless fans and scientists have long wanted to know: who really was Elvis?
Barometer for the nation
Presley’s exact definition may depend on when and who you ask. Early in his career, both fans and critics branded him a “country cat”. He then became the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, a musical monarch who was placed on a mythical throne by promoters.
But for many, he has always been the “King of White Trash Culture,” a story about how the working-class white Southerners get rich without convincing the national establishment of its legitimacy.
These overlapping identities reflect the provocative fusion of class, race, gender, region and commerce that Elvis embodied.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his personality was the singer’s relationship to race. As a white artist who profited heavily from popularizing African-American-related style, Presley worked in the shadows throughout his career and was suspected of racial appropriation.
The connection was complex and fluid, to be sure.
Quincy Jones met and worked with Presley in early 1956 as music director for CBS-TV’s The Stage Show. In his 2002 autobiography, Jones noted that Elvis should be listed among the greatest innovators of pop along with Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. However, by 2021, in the midst of a changing racial climate, Jones dismissed Presley as an unabashed racist.
Elvis seems to serve as a barometer measuring the various tensions in America, gauged not so much by Presley as by the pulse of the nation at any given moment.
You are what you consume
But I think there is another way to think about Elvis that could put into context many of the questions surrounding him.
Historian William Leuchtenburg once described Presley as a “consumer culture hero,” an industrial product more image than real.
The score was negative; it was also incomplete. It didn’t take into account how consumerism might have shaped Elvis before he became an artist.
Presley was in his teens when the post-World War II consumer economy was at its peak. A product of unprecedented abundance and pent-up demand brought on by depression and wartime casualties, it provided near-limitless opportunities for those seeking to amuse themselves and define themselves.
A teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, took advantage of these opportunities. Using the “you are what you eat” idiom, Elvis became what he consumed.
During his formative years, he shopped at Lansky Brothers, a Beale Street clothing store that outfitted African-American performers and provided him with second-hand pink and black ensembles.
He tuned in to radio station WDIA, where he soaked up gospel, rhythm and blues, and jargon from black disc jockeys. He switched to WHBQ’s “Red, Hot, and Blue”, which featured Dewey Phillips playing an eclectic mix of R&B, pop and country. He visited music stores Poplar Tunes and Home of the Blues, where he bought the music dancing in his head. And in theaters at Loew’s State and Suzore #2, he watched the latest films of Marlon Brando or Tony Curtis, imagining in the dark how to imitate their behavior, sideburns and duck tails.
In short, he drew from the country’s growing consumerist culture a personality the world would recognize. Elvis mentioned this in 1971, when he rarely looked into his own psyche after receiving the Jaycee Award as one of the country’s ten outstanding young men:
“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comics and I was a comic book hero. I saw the films and I was the hero in the film. So every dream I ever dreamed came true a hundred times… I mean, I learned very early in life that “without a song, the day will never end. Without a song, a man has no friend. Without a song, the road never curved. Without a song. So I’ll keep singing the song.”
In this acceptance speech, he quoted “Without a Song,” a stock tune played by artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Roy Hamilton, smoothly presenting the words as if they were words directly applicable to his own life experiences.
Does that make the recipient of Jaycee some kind of “weird, lonely kid yearning for eternity,” as Tom Hanks’ Tom Parker tells the grown-up Presley in the new Elvis movie?
I do not think so. On the contrary, I see in him a man who simply devoted his life to consumption, which is not uncommon in the late 20th century. Scholars point out that while Americans once defined themselves by their genealogy, work, or faith, they increasingly began to identify themselves by their tastes and, indirectly, by what they consumed. When Elvis created his personality and practiced his craft, he did the same.
This was also evident in the way he spent most of his free time. A tireless worker on stage and in the recording studio, however, these settings required relatively little time from him. For most of the 1960s, he made three films a year, each taking less than a month to complete. This was the limit of his professional duties.
From 1969 until his death in 1977, only 797 of the 2,936 days were devoted to concerts or studio recording. He spent most of his time relaxing, playing sports, riding motorcycles, go-karts, horseback riding, watching TV and eating.
By the time he died, Elvis was a shell of himself. Overweight, bored and chemically addicted, he seemed emaciated. A few weeks before his death, a Soviet publication described him as a “wreck” – a “ruthlessly” discarded product that fell victim to the American consumer system.
Elvis Presley proved that consumerism, if channeled productively, can be creative and liberating. He also demonstrated that, without limits, it can be empty and destructive.
Luhrmann’s film promises to tell a lot about one of the most charming and enigmatic figures of our time. But I have a hunch that it will also tell Americans a lot about themselves.
Who are you, Elvis? the trailer is hauntingly exploring.
Perhaps the answer is simpler than we think. He is all of us.