Long live the king

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 14 Mar 2023


Now that the Hollywood award season is over and the gold has been handed to the victors, has the feasting dust settled in tinsel town? Hardly.

Parties for the winners, contracts, salaries, projects, plans; and the dream of Oscar continues. As for the losers you can almost hear the moaning and groaning, and see the tears pouring, of envy and jealousy, regret and remorse.

By now the world knows who are the Belles and Beaux who took home the gold, but as of this writing, Oscar night is yet to come. We write in total darkness with only our instincts to guide us.

In past articles we have made known our preferences, which happened to coincide with the British Awards (BAFTA). This means BAFTA voters are wise and make us proud. Our Best Film Award went to All Quiet on the Western Front, and our Best Actress was none other than the highly talented Cate Blanchett. Now for the Best Actor we have chosen the young, fresh face of Austin Butler, who embodied the very image of Elvis Presley, king of rock ‘n roll.

The 30-year-old actor may not be familiar to you, but he has been around in Disney productions and a teenage idol for some time. Moreover, he can sing.

Australian director Baz Luhrman, of stage and opera fame, was asked why he gave such an imposing role on which he had been toiling over for the past three years to such a minor actor. The answer was simple.

He received a videotape from Denzel Washington of Butler singing “Unchained Melody”. Luhrman was so moved by the poignant rendition, he signed Butler on the spot. It still took Butler two years to prepare for the part, travelled to Australia and worked daily with Luhrman.

He was ready to embody the icon, the legend, the king. He vanished in the role. He became Elvis and is said to still speak like him. Whoever said acting was easy?

Biopics certainly are not. Often made and often fail, we are still nostalgically drawn to them. Thirteen movies have been made through the last 25 years about Elvis. Do you remember any of them?

Luhrman’s Elvis is the third highest grossing biopic in 50 years. The film has already grossed $150 million, while the competition with contenders Brian Fraser and Colin Farrell collected under $10 million, combined.

Oscar used to love box-office hits, but times have changed.

During the last decade seven of the Best Actor Awards went to those playing influential historic figures. Daniel Day Lewis won for playing Abraham Lincoln, Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, Churchill was masterly presented by the talented Gary Oldman, and who can forget our own Rami Malek for his impeccable rendition of Freddie Mercury?

What Butler accomplished was getting inside the spirit of the most celebrated icon of the second half of the 20th century, “if not the entire century.”

Butler owns the Oscar with such praise from critics as“phenomenal”, “immaculate,” “powerful”, “show-stopper”.

Even Sotheby’s & Christie’s, famous auction establishments, were betting on him: “He better win.”

Butler grabbed all the major awards but at the time of writing we fear the diminishing taste of the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences voters. We salute them if they voted for him.

Luhrman’s genius is apparent in producing Elvis, not in a Wikipedia style narrative, but from the perspective of Presley’s dubious friend and manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.

How can we write about an Elvis movie without elaborating on the highest-selling solo recording artist of all time?

He was a truck driver at 19, a year later Elvis Aaron Presley recorded his first song. He could sing anything and he did, from rhythm and blues, to pop tunes, from country music to rock ‘n roll. He sang gospel music like an angel and his Christmas album is a bestseller to this day.

The multiplicity of his singing style made him popular with every age, colour, and creed. He hit the music world like a tsunami, an earthquake, and a hurricane combined. His movies, flimsy as they were, grossed the highest box-office numbers, and on the screen, unlike his concerts, you could see moments, flashes of pathos that were quickly drowned by a striking guitar, a joke or a song. Yes indeed, Elvis was king.

Then came the 1960s and the Beatles. They idolised him and exerted a great effort to meet him. “Nothing affected me until I heard Elvis. Without Elvis there would be no Beatles,” said John Lennon.

The question always arises as to which musical phenomenon had more success. Elvis died 45 years ago at age 42. The Beatles broke up 50 years ago. Yet both are still bestsellers to this day, but the question lingers.

We need scientists to analyse that, and scientists did. Two computer scientists, Steven Skiena and Charles B Ward, performed quantative analyses comparing historical reputations of famous people throughout history.

The long-term historical performance of Elvis rivals that of thousands of classical composers as stated in their book Who is Bigger. Elvis outranks the Beatles in terms of significance, while the Beatles outrank him slightly in fame.

In terms of gravitas and longevity of music, Elvis wins.

His output of 750 songs is astounding. His inspiration continues. He is forever king.

“It’s hard to overstate the influence of Elvis Presley on music as we know it today.”

 James Brown (1933-2006)


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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