Donald Clarke: How Elvis the outsider artist lost his cool

The King of Rock’n’Roll has none of the long-term appeal of The Velvet Underground or Prince

In the closing days of the Cannes film festival there has been much discussion of the King of Rock’n’Roll. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis premiered at the Lumière Theatre on Wednesday night with all the usual red-carpet hoopla and hysterical applause. As is the Australian director’s way, the lavish film, starring Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as his Mephistophelean manager Tom Parker, booms and glitters like a cinematic Mardi Gras. Is all the glitz to a point? Does anyone still care? Would Luhrmann have been as well making a film about Glenn Miller or Ivor Novello?

Let’s not push it. As the film notes at the close, Elvis is still considered the highest-selling individual artist of all time. The look is still about. One can barely get through a week without seeing some current star pulling on a leather jacket and teasing up his (or often her) greased hair. We are living through the aftermath of Elvis mania in other ways.

Astonishingly, the great man never performed outside North America. Yet his first wave of success announced the US’s imminent hegemony of popular cultural. It had been coming for a time. From the early part of the century, Hollywood had, to the dismay of tweedy gatekeepers, been advertising the material bounty and the social informality of that nation. But the real avalanche came in the aftermath of the second World War. In the mid-1950s, Coca Cola, blue jeans, hamburgers and, most important of all, rock‘n’roll arrived with a proper wallop. Older folk said it would all be forgotten about by Christmas. Older folk are always wrong about such things.

Elvis’s spectacular success confirmed that henceforth western popular music would be dominated by a form derived from the African-American community. White appropriation (such as his) often obscured that fact. But hip-hop, metal and disco can all be traced back to those roots. Mario Lanza and Vera Lynn could not.

Nick Cave’s Tupelo, recorded 30 years after Elvis broke, associated his birth with an apocalyptic cyclone. “No bird can fly, no fish can swim. No fish can swim until The King is born in Tupelo,” he sang. “He’s probably the most important star of all time,” Alanna Nash (”the first journalist to see Elvis Presley in his casket”), wrote a few years ago. “You can’t argue with the fact that he not only changed, but directed the course of both popular music and popular culture of the ‘50s.”

I don’t suppose you can. And yet, it doesn’t always seem that way. The most remarkable thing about the rock‘n’roll revolution was that it generated artists who continued to appeal – and continued to seem cool – to young people 10, 20, 30 years their junior. Heck, Paul Mescal, easily young enough to be Mick Jagger’s grandson, seemed thrilled to appear in a Rolling Stones video two years ago. Culture critics born decades after The Beatles split up pored obsessively over every throat clearance and dropped biscuit in Peter Jackson’s mammoth series Get Back.

Elvis doesn’t have that appeal to the generations that came after. There is no sense that he works on young musicians in the same fashion as – moving through the decades – The Velvet Underground, Kate Bush or Prince. Brett Morgan’s Moonage Daydream, a drifty psychedelic musing on David Bowie, also premiered to great acclaim at this year’s Cannes. Nobody could reasonably claim that the former David Jones has drifted beyond the embrace of cool. Elvis no longer has that kudos. He lost it decades ago.

The distinction is, to some extent, tied up in a mass act of deception. The core theme of Luhrmann’s film is how Colonel Tom Parker lured Elvis away from the raw, rootsy music he recorded with Sun Records towards a glossier aesthetic that culminated with the late, indulgent – and often terrific – Las Vegas shows. In short, he reconnected the supposed enemy of decent middle-America with traditional show business. Briefly an outsider artist, he could now occupy the same family-entertainment bubble that enveloped Dean Martin, Doris Day and Bob Hope. Not cool.

The great trick of the 1960s was to convince the world that musicians could sell millions of records and still exist outside the old-school show business milieu. If anything, The Beatles moved in the opposite direction to Elvis. Brian Epstein put them in nice matching suits. They later ditched them for unconvincingly scruffy hippie chic. John Lennon may have owned two Rolls Royces, but he did not believe himself to be a white-bread entertainer like Jimmy Tarbuck, Bruce Forsyth or Mike Yarwood. In contrast, Elvis had long been accepted into the mainstream fold. The records still sold. The face remained familiar. But the damage had been done. Parker was a canny huckster, but he missed a trick in not foreseeing the long-term benefits of pretending (and it is a pretence) to work apart from the show-business machine.

Keep it “real”.

Elvis is released on June 24th