Take the stage with “Elvis”
Published 8:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2022
By Evan Fitch
This week at Tryon Theatre, we can’t help falling in love with “Elvis,” the glitzy biopic arriving perfectly in time for the hound-dog-days of summer. “Elvis” is sure to entertain with a captivating and celebrated performance from Austin Butler as “The King” himself.
This applauded film tells a deeply personal story of growth and strife across the decades, set amidst the musical spectacle of the stage and the ever-consuming role it had in Presley’s life. “Elvis” is directed by the steady hands of Baz Lurhman, treading similar territory to his acclaimed 2001 musical, “Moulin Rouge.”
The musical biopic is perhaps one of the most consistently celebrated genres, spanning many decades of successful reception and covering a wide variety of subjects. One needs only to look at a list of Oscar-nominated or similarly lauded films from the last decade or so to see many films operating within the style.
Films such as “Respect” (Tommy 2021), “Rocketman” (Fletcher 2019), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Singer/Fletcher 2018), “Love and Mercy” (Pohlad 2014), and “Ray” (Hackford 2004) have all occupied the same artistic and critical territory. Perhaps the musical biopic in which people will naturally find the most parallels to “Elvis” is the acclaimed “Walk the Line” (Mangold 2005), starring Joaquin Phoenix.
“Walk the Line” tells the story of Johnny Cash’s life, most notably his painful relationships with both his childhood and his celebrity. While the two biopics tread different territory stylistically, the narrative through lines of the two stars’ lives, especially their formative years, share many distinct similarities, predominantly the sources and locales of influence on their respective musical careers to come.
Both men were born into financially and socially tumultuous times: the early 1930s of America, squarely in the middle of The Great Depression. The inconsistent and unreliable economics of the time uprooted many families from both their homes and their occupations, including both the Cash and Presley families.
This transient period of economic pursuit would eventually land both men in Memphis, Tennessee. With only three years of difference in age Presley (15) and Cash (18), would emerge on the newly minted rockabilly scene. Elvis’ success would come quickly despite his youth, recording with Sun Records in 1954. Cash would audition at this very same studio, but with less success, having not yet found his unique sound.
In a stroke of delightful coincidence, there did come a day in 1956 when both men found themselves in the Sun studios at the same time, and in the company of two other soon-to-be famous men who similarly cut their teeth in the early 1950’s Memphis music scene, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The four men made one recording together, later titled “The Million Dollar Quartet.” This would be one of the only times that Presley and Cash’s careers would be intertwined, although they would occupy similar echelons of musical fame and celebrity for decades to come.
The far-reaching fame of both Presley and Cash was a direct result of the universal reach of their music. The way their voices and guitars touched us, made us feel understood, made us feel alive, made us feel loved or in love, or simply made us feel resonates to this day.
That emotional resonance is what I believe keeps bringing us back to the musical biopic; an opportunity, if only for a few hours, to relive our beloved music, but more importantly, to better understand the hearts of the artists whose music has so deeply touched our own.