Among other things, Elvis Presley invented the rock ’n’ roll comeback. Up until 1968, ”coming back” from a career break barely existed in the new style since most fell short, or failed. Carl Perkins’s 1956 car crash just before his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show interrupted his “Blue Suede Shoes” momentum at a crucial moment. When it leaked on his 1958 UK tour that his wife was only 13, Jerry Lee Lewis sought redemption by appealing to the only audience that might forgive him: country and western, and country-gospel. With many others (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent), fate delivered a cold, hard slap.
Elvis bombed during his first Vegas stint in 1956 just as he tried to break nationwide, and when called him up for peacetime Army service in 1958, he feared losing most of his listeners. His 1960 Welcome Home Elvis TV appearance with Frank Sinatra sent his career into ultra-safe mode. John Lennon liked to say Elvis “died when he went into the Army.” Presley had so much ambition that comebacks turned into a defining feature of his career. His talent, and what it signaled, foretold of such flamboyance and shock that the world needed time to keep readjusting. It’s still adjusting.
Presley once dominated a stage far bigger than a thousand Beyoncés or Harry Potters. It’s a measure of Luhrmann’s imagination that he senses just how much Elvis warrants another return, and has plenty of arresting ideas. Maybe one too many.
Now, the biggest Elvis comeback of all, Baz Luhrmann’s feature biopic, places all these others in a new context. Given its many flaws, and overbearing length, that’s impressive. History’s distortions can prove pitiless; pillars of the style have long since faded, or morphed into caricatures. Bloated biopics for Ray Charles and James Brown fell away almost instantly. And rock continues to manufacture irony: the idea of the Young Mick Jagger now gets trotted out and explained. Partly because Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, and former wife, Priscilla, have not captured attention since Marie’s divorce from Michael Jackson in 1996, and major film references to the King have dropped off after Michael Madsen’s soft-core cameo as an apparition in Thelma and Louise in 1991, and a brief sequence in Forrest Gump (1994), the Presley persona hasn’t carried over into digital as much as some others...