‘Elvis’ Biopic’s Black Roots Are Real, Not Woke


Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” isn’t your standard-issue biographical film.

There have been other Presley biopics released over the years, including one starring Kurt Russell (1979) and a miniseries with Jonathan Rhys Meyers (2005). But the director of “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby” figured something … different was in order.

Luhrmann’s “Elvis” brims with razzle-dazzle sequences, concert recreations and those Presley hip gyrations that caused a societal stir. Anyone expecting conventional rags-to-riches storytelling, though, will be disappointed.

Co-star Tom Hanks, playing the duplicitous Colonel Tom Parker, gets so much screen time it’s almost like you’re watching “Elvis and the Colonel.”

Luhrmann doesn’t ruminate on the icon’s ’70s excess but digs into his formative years. That means showing a young Presley attending black churches and peeping into clubs where black musicians made music outside the cultural mainstream.

None of the presentation is woke. It’s a celebratory recreation of Presley’s backstory. And this “Elvis” doesn’t condemn its subject for cultural appropriation.

It honors that amalgam of music, culture, and style.

It’s undeniable that Presley allowed the music industry to elevate gospel and R&B stylings via a white performer who captured their essence.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, since some black artists did crack the mainstream during the 1950s, including The Dominoes, who made a run at the pop music charts with “Sixty Minute Man” in 1951. With the lyrics “I rock ’em, roll ’em all night long,” the track is even considered by some as the origin of the “Rock and Roll” genre.

Plus, Bill Haley beat out Presley on the charts, albeit barely, with 1954’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

Presley, though, became a once-in-a-generation superstar.

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, he spent his early days in a racially mixed community. His tight-knit family attended the Assembly of God Church, exposing him at a young age to gospel music.

The future star moved to Memphis, TN, in his teen years, where he absorbed the sounds of historic Beale Street. Teen Presley shopped on the celebrated street and soaked in the blues and gospel singers who called the region their second home.

Graceland.com, dedicated to keeping Presley’s legacy intact, elegantly captures how the singer incorporated those influences into his art. “[Presley] uniquely combined his diverse musical influences and blurred and challenged the social and racial barriers of the time.”

The movie finds him comparing creative notes with the likes of B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and it’s clear being a white star channeling blues and gospel notes let him rise beyond some black peers.

Presley’s mammoth talents did the rest.

He openly spoke of how black singers impacted his creative choices. A 1957 interview with Jet Magazine, recalled by The Daily Beast, offers a window into his generous spirit:

“I always wanted to sing like Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots. … I like that high, smooth style. … I never sang like this in my life until I made that first record—‘That’s Alright, Mama.’ I remembered that song because I heard Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup sing it and I thought I would like to try it.” 

Black musicians, in turn, embraced him as an artist, not merely a white colleague. James Brown, for example, called him “his brother” and upon Presely’s death said, “There’ll never be another like that soul brother.”

Sammy Davis, Jr. similarly hailed Presley and spoke openly of their respectful bond.

“Elvis” wisely ignores any cries of cultural appropriation. Luhrmann’s film honors Presley’s musical gifts while acknowledging his cultural influences. This shrewd approach to assessing the icon’s body of work is not only fair to the subject matter, but it’s also accurate to how Presley embraced those influences.

“Elvis” shows the superstar commiserating with Harrison Jr.’s B.B. King in scenes that lack the depth and details that haunt the rest of the superficial trappings. They reveal a musician willing to learn from his peers, no matter their skin color.

He worshipped music in all its wondrous shadings.

Not everyone signed off on Presley’s noble heart. Music impresario Quincy Jones dubbed Presley a racist based on what band leader Tommy Dorsey claimed about Presley.

Snopes.com debunked one allegedly racist Presley quote which circulated in the late 1950s. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips similarly described an Elvis Presley who didn’t match Dorsey’s version: “The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley had to be one of the biggest things that happened to us …”

Presley’s story, as everyone knows, had a tragic ending. His medicinal addictions turned him into a sideshow — witness the “Fat Elvis” some impersonators evoke in their act. He died at 42 but remains an integral part of pop culture.

And his success, from his innate gifts to his ability to fuse cultural influences into one irresistible package sans hate, embodies the American dream in a way few others could replicate.

Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, movie critic and editor of HollywoodInToto.com. He previously served as associate editor with Breitbart News’ Big Hollywood. Follow him at @HollywoodInToto

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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