The new biopic Elvis highlights the beginning and end of the career of this rock and roll legend. The audience is taken on this journey knowing the tragic ending but not so much about what led him there. A large topic of discussion is the influences on Elvis that made him who he was as a singer, musician, and performer, which were blues, gospel, and country. Many of the songs that rose him to fame were songs by Black artists he heard growing up in primarily Black settings.
His Stage Presence
From the iconic “Elvis wiggle” to his dramatic dancing, Elvis has been extremely influenced by Black tradition. The movie highlights this as viewers are shown how he was poor and raised around Black people and their music. There is a scene in which Elvis goes to a Black church after he is intrigued by the spirituals they are singing. In Black churches, specifically those in the south during this time, church members would often dance to gospel music in a big way. They would dance hard, fast, spin, shake, and rejoice in the Lord. Many refer to it as “catching the holy spirit or holy ghost.” Elvis experiencing this is what influenced his signature wiggle and his overall over-the-top stage performances.
Just as he was inspired in his stage presence, he was inspired by their music as well. The film shows him as a preteen or teenager peeking into a shed and listening to blues music. When he visited the church and heard the classic hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” the film cuts to him singing that song to warm up for a performance as a young adult. He recorded several songs by Black artists such as the world-renowned “Hound Dog”.
Many people before this movie did not know the extent to which Elvis was influenced by Black culture, and many diminish him as an artist because of it. Was it influence or was it stealing and then repackaging it in a way to appeal to white audiences? The movie portrays it as pure influence and how it was organically repackaged to appeal to white audiences. It additionally emphasizes how not all white audiences liked it. Although Elvis was white, it was still considered “negro” dancing and “negro” music at the time. Further, Elvis’s fame opened the doors for Black artists to begin being accepted by mass white audiences. If Elvis did not record their songs, the chances of those songs being heard by that many people would be low due to the racial politics of the time.
The film did the impact of Elvis’s influence from Black people justice, and while many people wanted to hear more about the Black artists and their feelings towards the success of Elvis, the movie was told from the perspective of the Colonel, which didn’t allow many other perspectives besides his own and Elvis’s. Elvis did get much of his influence from Black culture, and he tied it in with his own personality and love for country music to become the music legend and cultural influencer that he was. And with that, he in fact owes it all to the Black community.