Elvis Presley trapped on the big screen

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, Girls, More Girls (1962), Tickle Me (1965) Where Micmac in Montana (1968) had erased Mystery Train, Heartbreak Hotel Where Hound Dog, the titles by which Elvis had offered his person, incarnation of 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 King Oedipus, reading a myth. Getting comfortable with the story, theElvis by Baz Luhrmann evades the role of cinema in the construction and demolition of this myth. However, it is essential and worth revisiting.

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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 shot before 1958 (Love Me Tender, Frenzied Love, Le Rock du Bagne and Brawls at King Creole) offered a completely different picture. In The rock of the penal colony, 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 frantic love, directed by Hal Kantner in 1957, which takes up certain elements of his biography (the hero is a music-loving trucker). 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.

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