Forty-five years ago, on Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis Presley was found dead in the bathroom of his palatial Graceland estate in Memphis — officially of cardiac arrest, but the medicine cabinet of prescription drugs in his system surely didn’t help. In the decades since, reviving Presley and his legacy has become a recurring pop-culture ritual. The campaigns have included a jukebox musical, numerous reissues and lavish box sets, an EDM remix, documentaries (most recently 2018’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher), and biopics (starring Kurt Russell and a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson).
Each time around, the attempts, even those with the best of intentions, didn’t quite do the trick of introducing Presley to a new generation: They were all preaching to the same loyal, and maturing, King choir. So when it was announced in 2019 that proudly over-the-top director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) would be next in line to make a dramatic feature out of Presley’s life, the idea of turning Gen Z and millennials into Elvis fans seemed like an even more Herculean task.
For a generation that grew up with hip-hop, Max Martin-pumped pop, and early ’00s pop-punk as their connection to rock, what possible appeal could there be in an icon who made his first recordings nearly 70 years ago? Or one who has been labeled by some as racist, culturally appropriating, and a symbol of bloated pop excess? In the 21st century, Elvis Aaron Presley should be as relevant as an eight-track tape of Moody Blue.
Yet in what amounts to a minor miracle or a genius marketing campaign, Luhrmann’s Elvis has connected with both the Presley faithful, who, on Monday night, spent hours in line waiting to file past Presley’s grave at Graceland’s candlelight vigil, and those born this century. According to Comscore, when the film opened in June, roughly one-fifth of those who purchased a ticket were millennials and Gen Z, a startlingly high number for an artist who rocked their grandparents. As of this week, the biopic, all two-and-a-half-hours of it, has grossed over $141 million — not quite Marvel movie level, but more than respectable. There’s even Oscar talk for the film’s star Austin Butler, who plays both the young and ravaged Elvis and literally grows into the role as the film plows on.