Elvis Presley is one of the most iconic American figures of the 20th century. He will forever be known as the “King of Rock and Roll” because of his ability to blend country music with rhythm and blues. However, Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” complicates the singer’s legacy and shines light on a lesser known part of Elvis’ career: the work he stole from Black people.
I did not know much about Elvis before watching this film other than him having been brought up on “Lilo & Stitch” growing up, and I knew only a few classic Elvis songs like “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Growing up in East New York, Elvis was never really spoken about fondly but instead hated for all the work he stole.
Public Enemy’s Chuck D – another fellow Brooklynite – even wrote his iconic dis to Elvis in his rap in “Fight the Power” when he said: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he/ Never meant shit to me, you see, straight out/ Racist — that sucker was simple and plain/ Mother-f him and John Wayne!”
However, if we look at Black artists of the time, like James Brown, the unofficial “Godfather of Soul,” we see the deep connections Elvis had within the Black community and with Black artists. In Brown’s memoir “I Feel Good,” he is quoted saying, “I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. Last time I saw Elvis alive was at Graceland. We sang ‘Old Blind Barnabus’ together, a Gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.”
In Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” he even portrays Elvis as wanting to speak out about civil rights issues but not being able to because of his promoter, Colonel Tom Parker. At one point in the film, Elvis sneaks to Beale Street to party with Blues legend B.B. King and takes a photo that makes headlines around the country the next day. While Elvis is fine with the picture, the Colonel is not because he wants Elvis to have a “squeaky clean” image for investors. Squeaky clean, in this case, means staying away from Black people.
Luhrmann takes a unique approach to his “Elvis” biopic by making the film from the Colonel’s perspective rather than Elvis’. In the Colonel’s commentary we see how manipulative he was to Elvis, taking credit for Elvis’s ideas, lying to Elvis about business opportunities and so much more.
However, the question remains: Did Elvis support civil rights and integration despite not speaking outright about it? The answer seems to be yes, and Luhrmann even showcases this in the film when Elvis ignores the Colonel’s request to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” for his Christmas special to instead sing “If I Can Dream.”
So, why is Elvis so controversial in the Black community? Simply put, he stole music.
Elvis’ hit song that started his career was “Hound Dog,” a song originally meant to embrace Black female empowerment. The song was written by Big Mama Thornton and Jerry Leiber, but the meaning behind the song changed when Elvis released his version. Instead of an uplifting song about Black female empowerment, likeBeyonce’s “Brown Skin Girl” before Beyonce, it became simply a catchy tune; that is, until “Elvis.”
In the film, Luhrmann includes a scene in the film of Big Mama Thornton — played by Shonka Dukureh, RIP — singing “Hound Dog,” and he released the full version of the song on the film’s album. Luhrmann’s film, unlike many other biographical films, sheds light on parts of Elvis’ legacy that most want to forget.
While Elvis is an influential figure in American history, his name would not be known if not for the songs he stole from Black artists at the time. Luhrmann even makes this point at the very start of the film when the Colonel becomes obsessed with Elvis after hearing him sing on the radio. At first the Colonel did not care about Elvis since he assumed he was Black, but once he found out he was white, all the Colonel could see was green.
I implore you, dear reader, to check out “Elvis” on HBO Max and in theaters, in addition to the documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” on HBO Max as well. Luhrmann uses “Elvis” to highlight the legacy the singer could have had compared to the one he ultimately did, while subtly giving credit to artists Elvis never did.
Giana Gerardino CM ’24 is one of TSL’s film columnists. She’s a Media Studies major with a sequence in Data Science and loves thriller movies, Harry Styles and Vice documentaries.