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New ‘Elvis’ Film Shows How Social Media Killed Celebrity Talent

The film reminds us that not long ago, characters could be larger than life, it paid to have style, and celebrities were worth celebrating.

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Director Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”is the target of much online scorn. NPR labels the film “dizzyingly absurd,” Mashable calls it “bizarre, dark and confounding,” and the Daily Beast writes that it’s “exhaustingly loud [and] terribly boring.” Luhrmann’s creation is also being criticized for not lambasting the King of Rock ’n Roll for his “black culture appropriation,” and according to Rolling Stone, Gen Z TikTok users — the epitome of cultural expertise — are “calling him out.”

When I learned a new Elvis movie was in the works, I thought, “Elvis? Really? Why Elvis, of all people?” To me, trying to reincarnate the animal magnetism of Elvis on screen is like getting someone to understand how good fresh Italian gelato is by describing it with words. You just can’t.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the film. Not because star Austin Butler captures the charisma of the King — I agree with critics who say Butler nailed the voice and dance moves but “not the soul or sex appeal of Elvis Presley” — but because it reminded me what it’s like to be captivated by a celebrity who exudes authentic, irresistible je ne sais quoi.  

An early scene in the movie shows a young Elvis taking to the stage for one of his first performances. He’s nervous and slow to come alive. But when he does, the crowd goes wild, with puritanical 1950s housewives in hats and gloves disturbed and concerned that their daughters, screaming and swooning over “Elvis the Pelvis,” were being possessed by an agent of Satan or something.

By today’s standards, in which Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke in a flesh-colored plastic bikini with a foam finger is now considered one of her tamer performances, Elvis is hardly provocative. But back then, and what Luhrmann illustrates, Elvis was doing something innovative and daring. He was initially censored on TV and his performances edited to conform with Federal Communications Commission rules. Nonetheless, as ClassicRockHistory.com notes, “Elvis Presley’s talent, work ethic, drive and appeal trumped the censor’s ability to apply the brakes to the Elvis train.”

Hollywood of Clones Afraid to Speak

These days, though, the worst thing you can do for your Hollywood career is challenge the status quo, and there’s no “trumping the censors.” Rather than shooting to stardom, you are simply canceled for daring to counter the establishment. Your voice is cut off and your career ended. Look what happened to Gina Carano, Antonio Sabato Jr., and many other stars who have been silenced for being different. And so we are left with a Hollywood composed of uninteresting, uninspiring plastic clones afraid to think, speak, or behave on their own accord.

It makes sense: if you’re afraid to make up your own mind and express yourself genuinely, how artistic and creative can you really be? To be a star now, you can hardly be relevant without social media, the zeitgeist of the modern conformist age whereby actions and opinions are scrutinized and echo into eternity. If you have a thought or did a thing and didn’t post about it online, did it really happen? 

Famous for Doing Nothing

Jennifer Aniston was recently raked over the coals for blaming the internet for shaping “a new culture about people becoming famous. This thing of people becoming famous for basically doing nothing. I mean — Paris Hilton, Monica Lewinsky, all those… You’re famous from TikTok. You’re famous from YouTube. You’re famous from Instagram. It’s sort of almost like it’s diluting our actor’s job.”

Aniston, whose parents were actors, was attacked for being a “nepotism baby.” But many people came to her defense too, pointing out that in the ’90s you “actually had to have talent.” I was struck by the truth of this while watching another blockbuster film in theaters recently. My brother and I both found “Top Gun: Maverick” entertaining, but we had the same reaction: the actors playing the young guns — Hangman and Rooster — were so lame, especially compared to the fun-loving bravado effortlessly owned by Maverick, Iceman, and Goose in the original movie.

The young guys just don’t have the swagger or the imagination necessary to make their characters memorable. They’re good-looking and competent, but like Butler’s Elvis, seem to be more impersonators than movie stars with their own self-made cool factor. Think of James Dean in “Giant,” Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” John Wayne in “True Grit,” or Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo.” The reason Old Hollywood is so venerated is because its members were bold enough to offer audiences dynamic personalities to admire.  

It didn’t help that I watched “Elvis” and “Maverick” around the same time I re-watched the 1989 “Lonesome Dove” mini-series, in which even the minor characters are stars in their own rights. The way Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones use speech patterns and mannerisms to make their characters charming and real and unforgettable is masterful. But it takes a certain daring I don’t see in the new actors and “influencers” who fit the cookie-cutter mold but lack a lasting flavor. 

Deroy Murdock is spot-on when he writes that the “Elvis” movie “highlights two key aspects of American exceptionalism: the eternal quest for success and this country’s infinite paths to personal reinvention.” In a world where “questing for success” in Hollywood involves simply posting salacious selfies, and cancel culture makes “personal reinvention” largely impossible, this movie is a fun reminder that at one time, not so long ago, characters could be larger than life, it paid to have style, and celebrities were worth celebrating.