If you are thinking of going to see the much-heralded biopic Elvis when it opens in cinemas on Friday, you might want to take a pinch of salt with you. Because the film is not just a tissue of lies, it's a whole luxury king-sized box full of them. Australian director Baz Luhrmann bends facts so far out of shape it goes beyond fictionalisation and enters a realm of pure fantasy.
I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. The movie looks fantastic, the music is explosively exciting, the editing dazzling and the story delivered with operatic emotional grandeur, if that sounds like your kind of thing. But it is so replete with fabrications, distortions, omissions and wilful misrepresentations, it is not so much biopic as myopic.
This is the Elvis myth, the saga of a rock 'n' roll demigod born to heal American racial, generational and spiritual wounds with the power of music but brought low by the venal manipulations of his foreign manager "Colonel" Tom Parker, depicted by a prosthetically enhanced Tom Hanks as an almost literal incarnation of the devil.
As a music critic, I was incredulous at the liberties taken by Luhrmann to create a portrait of the artist as a misunderstood genius. Meetings are fabricated to the point of the fantastical, including most of Elvis's encounters with the Colonel. Luhrmann's constant implications of Elvis's involvement in the Civil Rights movement are all tricks of editing, historical revision and imaginary encounters.
In particular, an extended sequence about Elvis's 1968 Comeback Special is ludicrous, depicting Elvis himself as the driving force and key architect of the show, deceiving the Colonel that he is making a cheesy Christmas special even as it is being filmed. (The mundane reality is that producers had their work cut out persuading Elvis not to do a Bing Crosby-style show and, instead, play some of his old hits.)
The way Elvis audaciously assembles and directs his touring band is complete tosh, whilst an incendiary onstage speech denouncing the Colonel's machinations is an absurd fiction from the always publicly polite and circumspect superstar.
Blurring Presley's sexual proclivity, drug addictions, food obsessions, dark depressions and decades of trashy pop, Luhrmann transforms Elvis into the artistic agent of all his triumphs, skips his failures and dumps the blame on Colonel Tom. Indeed, he skips so much, it's a wonder there is any story left to tell. Gone is Presley's decade-long battle with his weight. Instead, Elvis graciously puts on a few pounds for a brief finale. A veil is drawn over his ignoble end, an obese and constipated entertainer suffering a heart attack on a gold-plated toilet at Graceland in the midst of his final ablutions, destroyed by the rags-to-riches American Dream he embodied.
I left the Elvis screening dazed and confused by what I had seen, yet conscious that pedantic old rock critics probably weren't its target audience. So I approached a group of young people in their 20s to ask what they had made of it. Every one of them told me how amazing and moving the movie was. "I didn't know much about Elvis," said one girl, literally wiping tears from her eyes. "Such a beautiful, sad story."
This was the theme of a dozen conversations in the preview cinema foyer. The under-30s I spoke with genuinely did not know who Elvis was, or what he once meant to popular culture. Indeed, a poll in 2017 found that 29 per cent of adults between 18 and 24 had never listened to an Elvis Presley song.
Nevertheless, almost all had at least a notion of his image – albeit the jumpsuit and sunglasses version, a bit on the porky side. For many I spoke to, this was their first visceral encounter with the man and his music. "I just thought he was someone my gran liked, but now I get it," said one deeply impressed young man.
From my perspective, what he actually got was a sanctified version of Elvis enshrined only by his most delusional fans. But perhaps that is a fair place to start, a portal through which the curious might begin to find out more for themselves. At the very least, it puts Elvis back in contact with contemporary culture, when it appears he was in danger of fading away altogether. A fate certainly not his alone.
Last week, on my way to a concert in Liverpool, my taxi driver asked what was going on at Anfield Stadium.
The Rolling Stones," I said.
"They're rolling what?" said the driver, a young man in his 20s.
"The Stones are playing," I persisted.
"There's a game on?" he said. "I thought the season was over."
It turned out he had genuinely never heard of The Rolling Stones, hailed as the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world for six decades.
"I was born in the 90s," he shrugged.
But here's the thing. I bet that taxi driver and all those young Elvis novitiates know who Freddie Mercury and Queen are, such was the impact of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic in 2018. Going back to the seminal bands of the 1960s, how much does the enduring cachet of The Doors owe to Oliver Stone's 1991 biopic with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison? In terms of biographical authenticity, both of those filmic incarnations were dubious at best.
Yet their cinematic swagger and mythic narratives proved extremely effective at introducing old music to new generations. A resurgence of contemporary interest in The Sex Pistols has been closely allied with Disney's six-part TV series Pistol, despite frontman John Lydon dismissing it as "a middle-class fantasy".
Bohemian Rhapsody, meanwhile, gave its Live Aid ending an emotional punch by moving up the timeline of Freddie Mercury's Aids diagnosis by a full two years. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the forthcoming Rolling Stones drama from the makers of The Crown, who have paid the band £50 million (NZ$97m) for use of their music.
For those unacquainted with the original story or having no particular attachment to the subject, all the outrageous liberties involved in compressing a complicated life into a coherent dramatic narrative are irrelevant. What this audience wants is to be entertained. And Luhrmann's Elvis does that with an energetic panache sharply aimed at the tastes of a TikTok generation.
There is incredible material for a genuinely epic tale of triumph and tragedy with no dissimulation required. But such a film was never going to be made with the cooperation of the Presley estate, still stage-managing one of the most lucrative posthumous careers in showbiz. The King is dead. But in Luhrmann's lurid fantasy, Elvis lives again.