“I’m so tired of playing Elvis Presley,” says Elvis about midway through the new movie chronicling his life.
With this line, the dizzying excess of director Baz Luhrmann’s biopic slows its movements (pelvic or otherwise) to an introspective halt. Elvis’ despondent confession is layered. At this stage in the film, he is drained from feeling artistically unsatisfied and is slowly realizing his manager Col. Tom Parker is taking advantage of him. On a meta-level, the line could be a tongue-in-cheek reference to what happened to Austin Butler, who plays the film’s star; days after filming wrapped, Butler shared that his body shut down and he was bedridden for a week. When Butler says the line as Elvis, it’s hard not to think that it’s Butler’s own body that cries for a reprieve from the role.
It is fitting though, that fatigue and burnout would be synonymous with Elvis. Above all else, Luhrmann displays Elvis as a man-turned-god who was exhausted trying to make peace with his paradoxes. The King of Rock ‘n Roll lamented that his team’s livelihood relied on his success, yet craved the attention the spotlight gave him. He wanted to advocate for issues of justice but he himself was guilty of cultural appropriation. Elvis used Black and Gospel music for his own ends, but frustratingly, the film never dives fully into the problematic implications of this appropriation, instead portraying musical and cultural thievery as a twisted form of reverence.
As Luhrmann chaotically fleshes out these contradictions, he focuses in on Elvis’ complicated relationship with fame. With each successful radio hit, Elvis grew further away from the community that cared for him. He was forever caught between the roaring cheers of the crowd and the sobering rebuke spoken to him from his family and friends. It was his embrace of the former that tragically led him to his death.
This type of death awaits all who surrender to the false promises of celebrity. As I watched Elvis struggle with the weight of his platform, I was reminded of the fraught relationship megachurch pastors have with fame: from figures like Ravi Zacharias, who twistedly claimed that his sexual abuse of countless massage therapists was a “reward” for his exhaustive life in service to God, to former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz who similarly used the fame he got from pastoring celebrities to hide a manipulative and abusive environment for his church staff and volunteers. The Christian tradition has a sullied history when it comes to power and the pulpit. More often than not, leaders become consumed by their platforms. The bigger they get, the more convinced they become of their self-sufficiency. These leaders begin to shun accountability (like Mark Driscoll, for instance), harming the very communities they were meant to serve.
Visually, Luhrmann frames Elvis’ performances as nothing short of a spiritual experience. In one sequence, as the singer croons “Trouble,” he lowers his body down to a legion of swooning fans (a congregation?) who push past the security guards. Watching the scene, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were hoping that by touching the fringe of his black pants they’d be healed from their unrequited longing.
The more Elvis becomes consumed with his own god-like status, the more he shuns his support system. Indeed, fame will always center itself at the expense of others. Eventually the shunning morphs into hurt directed toward those who care for him. To keep up with the demand of his tours and shows, he begins to take drugs, and as he spirals further, he cheats on his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). The gap between the glories of his on-stage persona and his personal life widen as the film progresses.
However, the antidote to the self-destruction that comes with celebrity is to surround oneself with a community that’s willing to speak truth to power — a type of community that rejects the idea that any person is above accountability. In a touching scene from the film, Priscilla tries to offer Elvis this type of accountability and care. Through tears, she begs Elvis to get help, reminding him that he doesn’t have to remain enslaved to his career — that he is loved apart from his ability to perform.
Tragically however, Elvis dies alone at 42 from a heart attack (most likely, the film strongly insinuates, from his substance abuse). There’s a takeaway in this too: In the end, a community cannot force someone to change. Community can cultivate a desire for transformation but it is up to the person to ultimately embark on the path toward restoration and repair. Despite his counsel, Elvis could not see beyond the optics of his broken reality; refusing to change course, he made a choice to continue to push his body, mind, and spirit to the breaking point, even if it meant death.
Too often, with its leadership figures, the church resorts to celebrity worship instead of true accountability. The church should instead be striving for something deeper and truer. In her book This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley imagines such a community: Quoting poet and activist Audre Lorde who said, “Without community there is no liberation,” Riley expands on this quote further, sharing that there “is no promised land without a multitude. You think you can get there alone, and maybe by some rare chance you do. But what will become of the promise when it is collapsed by loneliness? Who is going to drink all that milk and honey with you?” For Elvis, the further he traveled from his hometown of Graceland to reach an elusive promised land, the lonlier he became. Had he come back, he may have seen that all along, his community held the true freedom from his exhaustion.
So may the church live into the community it is called to be. May it look less like a screaming legion of fans, wooed by charisma and showmanship, and more like a great cloud of witnesses, ready to help its members throw off (or perhaps steward) the fame that can so easily entangle.