In recent weeks on this blog, we’ve been tracking a recent spate of biopics, including seminal musical legends Whitney Houston and Freddie Mercury / Queen. This week we’re continuing this trend with an upcoming feature retrospective on Elvis Presley called, suitably if obviously, The King. The previous trailers were relatively straightforward, presenting a predictably positive overall image of Houston and Mercury. However, with The King, it becomes apparent midway through the trailer that this film is as much an extended metaphor acting as a comparison to and appraisal of the current American cultural moment as it is a remembrance of where and how Elvis Presley impacted his own time.
The trailer opens unexpectedly, with fervently solemn and devotional choral music. Members of the public comment in awe and reminisce about memorabilia and items symbolic of Presley’s fortune, such as the Rolls-Royce car he once drove. A voice over intoning how people had “no idea how hard he hit American culture” is accompanied by footage of early performances and fan pandemonium on the streets.
As the choral music continues and enters its final cadence, American rapper and head of Public Enemy Chuck D offers, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant (censored word) to me, straight of racist, the sucker was simple and plain” — at that juncture, the choral music is cut off with a record scratch. This works on two levels: the “record scratch” sound effect is as much being used as a standard sound effect when something unexpected happens in a narrative as it is symbolic of Chuck D’s career as a rap artist. And, crucially, it is at this moment that we understand, through the use of sound editing, what this film is actually about: the truthfully contentious nature of Elvis’ legacy amongst Americans, and how this applies to life in America in 2018.
The next image and sound we see is the originalversion of what is now thought of as an Elvis staple: Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 hit “Hound Dog,” released three years later as Elvis’ rendition. The insinuation here, in the context of the immediately preceding quotation from Chuck D, certainly seems to the suggest that a large part of Elvis’ success can be attributed to appropriating black American music and repackaging and selling it as a white artist. Obviously, this idea is up for debate, and that point of contention that is still very much alive today promises to act as a driving vehicle for the film. As the voiceover notes, “he was the voice of the country at its best and its worst.”
The second half of the trailer focuses on the latter stages of Elvis’ life and career — his self-destructive tendencies. “If Elvis is a metaphor for America, we’re about to OD,” the a voice narrates over an image of an American flag flapping in the wind.
Notably, the music for this second half of the song is not Elvis’ – it appears to be a stripped-down (just acoustic guitar and voice) cover m. ward’s “sad, sad song,” first released in 2003.
In fact, in this trailer ostensibly about Elvis Presley, none of his music is actually used. This striking absence underscores the sense of questioning the pervades this trailer regarding his impact and his legacy in American music.
– Curtis Perry