Elvis: Devil in Disguise?

By: Brendan Manning

On Friday, June 24, Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis, hits cinemas. The blockbuster feature of the summer starring Austin Butler as the title character, and Tom Hanks as his manager, follows the 1950s American icon on his journey to fame. 

From the trailer we see a child version of Elvis Presley observing gospel music in a church predominately attended by people of colour. Presley was not known for writing his own music, and many of his songs were written, or originally performed, by people of colour. This brings about the question of cultural appropriation. 

Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of elements from a culture or identity by members of another culture or identity, which is usually done inappropriately and without acknowledgment of the original culture. 

Presley grew up in a racially mixed neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee, which exposed him to a variety of musical styles that would go on to influence his sound throughout his career. Presley seamlessly, and possibly even subconsciously, blended gospel with blues and country and as a result became a cultural icon like no other. 

When asked in an interview with JET Magazine, an African-American owned journal, whether he invented rock ‘n’ roll, Presley said, “Rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people.” 

Perhaps incorporating their music into his discography was his attempt at blending black culture into the fabric of America. 

One of the most notable moments in Presley’s catalogue include, “In The Ghetto”, a song about a child in poverty, who, unable to overcome the cycle of crime and violence, will inevitably die. While this song does not address race, it was his first recorded song to carry a socially conscious message. Similarly, the song “If I Can Dream,” also raises awareness of racial injustice as it is said to be about the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The song’s lyrics parallel King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, “If I can dream of a better land, where all my brothers walk hand in hand…” 

It will be interesting to see whether the film touches on the creation of these songs and the social issues he presents with them.

The 2022 film trailer goes on to feature a scene between Butler’s Elvis and Hanks’ Colonel Parker. When they learn of the assassination of Senator Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Parker states, “Tragedy, but it has nothing to do with us,” to which Presley responds, “It has everything to do with us.” 

This version of Presley could be seen by some as an Anti-Racist White Savior, a term used to describe a cinematic trope in which a white character rescues non-white (often less prominent) characters from unfortunate circumstances. This can be problematic as the plot is usually only centred on the actions of a white person and ignores the experience of those who they claim to be helping. 

Was Presley appropriating music that didn’t belong to him? Honestly, I don’t know. The answer lies in the intent. Music is meant to bring people together, and Elvis certainly did that. It is my hope that this new film reintroduces an aspect of his narrative that is so often overlooked or forgotten about, while continuing to unite people through music without glamourising or forgetting to pay credit where it is due.