Yet it’s Austin Butler’s uncanny Elvis that’s truly the center of the show. His physicality is extraordinary, going beyond the regular impersonator vibe and seemingly inhabiting the man both in terms of his charisma as well as his extraordinary physical presence. The way Elvis’ music is messed with proves beneficial, reminding younger listeners especially of the explosive urgency that the vintage recordings may not achieve for those who have had such moments of experimentation and genre-blending baked into 75 years of rock ‘n’ roll’s evolution. I compare it to how David Milch uses filthwords in “Deadwood,” amplifying language of contemporary impact to elucidate how these things felt at the time.
Yes, “Elvis” is about a singular figure, but more than that it’s a celebration of a particular time of musical expression, when the entirety of Presley’s own musical gaze was firmly placed upon gospel, country, blues, and other music whose delineation would only become further solidified by the institutions of recording and transmission. Luhrmann’s trademark mash-ups remind us that the barriers are arbitrary if not counterproductive.
The man that followed Presley’s reign at Sun Records in Memphis, and whose own success was initially financed by the RCA deal that saw Sam Phillips finally able to showcase his retinue of artists on a national scale, is documented in Ethan Coen’s “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” documentary. Along with his wife and editor Tricia Cooke, the two have taken archival interviews and concert performances to weave a relatively chronological overview of the man known as “Killer.” The big hits are here, with clips familiar to any fan of early rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s the other, more obscure elements, particularly from his later “country” career, that may be more of interest to long-time fans.
The film deftly interweaves these musical and interview moments, buttressed by Lewis’ compunction for laying it all out when discussing his life and career with journalists. The salacious moments, including the U.K. reaction to his teenage bride, are explored directly. Similarly, his other career missteps and faltering asides are documented, including a bearded Jerry Lee talking about his upcoming role playing Christ (I, for one, would welcome a late 1970s inclusion of him in a rock musical version, but that’s perhaps my own bias showing through). Coen’s film a good introduction to the man, and even long-time fans should be pleased by the accessible yet interesting telling of the man’s musical life.