“It was the greatest Carnival Attraction I’d ever seen…
His Super Power was Music.”
– Colonel Tom Parker

An Australian Film Brand

With just six films over thirty years (1992-2022), Baz Luhrmann and his creative and marital partner Catherin Martin have successfully created their globally marketable brand, BAZMARK, from an Australian production base, with major American studio finance and distribution. Critically, their films, including ELVIS, sharply polarize opinion unfailingly, so much so that now one expects it. Certainly, the director does so, sanguinely. 

This piece will range across three questions in an intellectually rigorous and yet non-academic, manner:

What value does BAZMARK generate?
What are BAZMARK’S values?
Of what value to film history, theory and criticism is BAZMARK’s Elvis?

So, mobilising several facets of the thick idea of value, my primary focus is ethico-aesthetic (as always), while the ‘infrastructure of the sensible’ for the production of the brand will also be delineated.1

A Craft Ethos2

BAZMARK’S finely crafted films have a remarkably durable couture foundation and finish in the design of costumes, sets and art direction, for which Martin has received several Oscars. She uses fine material and often hand crafts some garments, and pays extreme attention to detail, which are time and money consuming, exacting values of couture production. ‘An army’ of skilled Australian crafts folk take time to get things just right. The couture values affect the quality, the crafting of performances live, without using Green Screen acting and CGI.3 Martin has spoken conceptually of the ‘spirit of a costume’ as though it were alive and breathing, a second skin. She taps into the deep tradition of thinking about costumes in European avant-garde theatre and dance as well. Taking a cue from BAZMARK’S mature practice, we film theorists might become open to its kinetic, tactile, haptic, sensory stimulation of thought.4 

Together, these practices have created an ethos, a sustainable ecology of production, exhibiting several ethico-aesthetic values which are uniquely Australian. Before exploring the implications of this commitment to an expensive hand-craft based practice, in a digitally powered cinema, now also streamed, I need to briefly clear the critical air first.

Bad Press

One can identify several formal elements of the BAZMARK signature style that predictably annoy most critics who dislike their aesthetic. But the very values that detractors decry are the ones that I will treat as the enabling conditions of the BAZMARK aesthetic.

Firstly, there is a dislike of the extreme high-speed editing which make opening ‘establishing sequences’ especially difficult to grasp, an impressionistic blur. Instead of exposition, we are subjected to a sense of chaos, a sensory overload of the digital informatic regime of the cinematic image. However, in quantum thought, ‘chaos’ as an idea is a singular form of order, a non-linear, non-mechanistic order5, applicable, as I argue, to the Luhrmann aesthetic. I specify this chaosmic-order through close analysis. Within the digital economy, the automated sensory over-load of speed of editing and camera movement have indeed become manic. This ‘mania’ of the image is ontological, the Realism of data driven contemporary cinematic image, unlike the old forms of Realism of analogue film. Luhrmann, (whatever his own ‘manic-creative-genius’ might be), attempts to make a significant difference within the dynamic of the informatic digital cinematic image regime and so, of necessity, he has to work within its logic. Which is also why he and Martin invest time and money in older, anachronistic forms of manufacturing of artefacts and costumes ‘live’, as these do make a vital difference to the actor-character who is still organic, in his cinema, not digitally engineered. By focusing on the multifaceted idea of ‘value’ I wish to pay tribute to Luhrmann and Martin’s tenacious Australian creativity under duress.

Take for example, a sequence of rapid shots which cut up Elvis’s body at his first concert, wearing a provocative pink linen suite. The speed of editing is animated by the intensity of the Southern white teenage girls screaming in orgasmic ecstasy at the display of such overt male sexiness, usually associated with black performers alone. The scene is hot-pink, the chaotic movements of the linen material (soft-motility) an essential part of the dynamic interplay between fabric, body and the sonic vitality of the performance. The digital speed is subsumed within this affective logic.

Secondly, there is a distaste for the kinds of characters and acting styles Luhrmann conjures up as in the case of the Colonel in Elvis, for example.6 He is a superbly zany comic character out of the pantomime tradition, like Pantalone. Critics who seek nuance, realism and psychology get very annoyed with Luhrmann’s play with a range of tastes and forms of acting and indeed with the hyper-decorative, design of the image. The ‘nuance’ is in the (couture-crafted), detail, sensed as particles of energy.  

Good Business Model

Costing 85 million dollars, Elvis made over 250 million within two months at the box office, globally, followed by streaming. This is a remarkable result in this long Covid-Omicron era with streaming services simultaneously delivering new releases after short theatrical runs. While financed by Warner Brothers, it was made in Australia during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and the global shutdown. The film shoot was also shut-down when Tom Hanks contracted Covid-19 and release dates changed. Under strict Australian quarantine regulations, the American principles and many extras had to self-isolate in the Gold Coast of Australia, the location of Village Roadshow Film Studios, where ELVIS was produced. Despite all, there was no budget blow out as far as I know. The film also boosted the local economy, especially the hotels and restaurants, in the total absence of the usual tourist traffic. BAZMARK also had special tax concessions from the Federal and Four State Government Film Institutions, under astute ‘creative industries policies’ which support film production with a local and global focus. All postproduction and special effects were also done locally. 

Luhrmann as Impresario

Baz Luhrmann is not only a global film auteur with a singular film style, he is also an impresario with immense flair for creating a collaborative milieu among highly talented people, somewhat reminiscent of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. An ability to assemble diverse international artists, to produce something unusual in an Australian film milieu, sets Baz Luhrmann apart as well. While he works with major Hollywood stars, he also seeks out relatively unknown actors and singers, including Australians, for important character roles as well. For example, David Wenham plays Hank Snow the Country ‘n Western singer to perfection and his son by Kodi Smit-McPhee in a wickedly funny turn. Richard Roxbrugh plays Elvis’ spaced-out father, and the talented newcomer Olivia DeJonge, Priscila.  Luhrmann creates a collaborative ethos where people give of their best because they are given the chance, the time, to experiment and fail without fear of failure. There is a tradition of this in theatre where long rehearsals are the norm, very rare in film. In this, he appears to be like Kubrick and Von Trier who created their own production ethos and practice at odds with the industrial imperative of efficiency. Impresarios have grand visions and also the organisational ability to martial complex resources to realize them by convincing producers too. 

The Story Teller in Elvis

The film opens with exquisitely delicate, glistening decorative images presenting the finely crafted logos of Warner Bros and ‘BZ’ standing in for ‘BAZMARK’. It’s a soft, nuanced, textured, glistening, slow-moving surface, a tribute to the embroidery and rhinestone decoration on Elvis’s famous Vegas camp costumes and belt buckles. Soft music turns into a cello accompanying a gravelly female gypsy voice, quietly singing a melancholy song with a touch of menace, ‘The snow man’s coming’ (From Cotton Candy Land, an Elvis lullaby). It cuts sharply to an overblown sequence introducing neo-lit Las Vegas by night. The same song is given a mock-grandiose camp orchestral choral rendition, while the camera dives in and out in manic movement showing billboards with dates, gigs and the Hotels, starting with 1997 the year of the Colonel’s death. It goes back to 1973 and then 1977, the year Elvis died. When the retrospective narration of the Colonel begins, he is already dead and chronology is undone; chaosmosis! Soon the 1970s multi-screen TV media spectacle bombards us creating a sinking feeling induced by a kaleidoscope of synchronic images, of planes dropping bombs on Vietnam, the arrival of the Beatles, image of Ronald Regan and much else. One feels breathless and dizzy.

The film’s voice-over narration opens in a morphine-addled dream of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager (in a Las Vegas hospital), played by Hanks. His mode of address, tone and foreign accent, is a mix of a grotesque fair barker using truisms, an imposter with no ID, having come to the US illegally from Holland. Language certainly is not his forte, marketing a product is. But using Colonel Tom Parker is a clever device (like the untrustworthy modernist narrator), freeing sounds and images from having to doggedly recount a life story. We are well and truly not in a bio-pic but on a BAZMARK fairground ride, with its roller-coasters, merry-go-rounds, ferris-wheels, shadow-plays, freak-shows, fire-eaters, even a ‘hound-dog’ … The camera and editing therefore has the maximum freedom to show sounds and images which far exceeds the Colonel’s capacities as conman story-teller cum fair-barker. He is presented as the showman who created and steered Elvis’ entire career from its meteoric rise to its bitter and degrading end, trapped in La Vegas with little control of his show, life and body. But we see and hear stuff, which he has no capacity to imagine. He is interested in Elvis for his market value as a commodity, which he seizes on brilliantly at every change of the media scape, from radio and records, to live concerts, to film and TV and global satellite transmission and finally to the simulated carnival of Las Vegas. 

Given the three modes of enunciation of the film then, our point of view includes an awareness of the limits of the story-tellers’ POV, the thinness of his yarn which he can’t quite spin. In contrast, BAZMARK, powered by its egalitarian ethos and aesthetic vision of resistance to the informatic-digital film regime, has the aesthetic capacity to be receptive to and thereby be nourished by the cultural vitality of African American life and art central to Elvis Presley’s stardom. 

Elvis’ Mother

Also, Elvis’s emotional relationship with his mother is foregrounded, textured, the camera lingering on her face with a growing expression of despair and depression, so evident in some of the black and white photographs of Elvis’s real-life mother. It is clear that she feels the dark side of the American Dream in relation to fame and fortune as she lived it, with Elvis’s near instantaneous rags to riches ride. It appears that the Australian actress Helen Thomas has taken her cue from those black and white photographs of Gladys Presley, which appear to have also influenced the script, giving her some of the most heartfelt and tenderly lacerating lines in the film. 

Intriguingly, Luhrmann has her shoo a few chooks who found their way into Graceland. He follows her and the chooks out of the house and into the porch, the yard and down some steps, doing this homely thing that really evokes another humbler place and time, so memorably. 

This two-shot quiet sequence feels like what Andre Bazin in a totally different context formulated as a neo-realist ‘fact-image.’7 Luhrmann grew up in the country, near a gas station and a cinema, and he has a keen sense of place, albeit nestling in the very heart of high-artifice. Bazin’s formulation of a ‘fact-image’ refers to the density of life in an image, which cannot be reduced to a ‘code of realism,’ which simply mimics or mirrors reality. A ‘fact-image’, says Bazin the poet, is not like a brick, but is rather more like those stones flung across a stream. They are not there to make our passage across the stream streamlined. But rather, we get our feet wet and might even slip because they are not there to be reduced to a function. Elvis’s mother with the chooks is part of the stream of her life, she is not a sign, ‘Elvis’s Mother’. She tells Elvis in exasperation that she ‘never wanted any of this’, pointing to the grand mansion, when he couldn’t understand why she was so upset most times and drinking too much. By then, certainly, something’s not all right with mama. That scene hit me like a ‘stray bullet’ in Italian Neo-Realist cinema. Bazin reminds us that the ‘fact-image’ is a new idea in the history of cinema and I believe that it can erupt in any-film-moment-whatever, if the coordinates of a programmed, automated world are interruptible by something random, not chance. It’s not the bullet but the idea of a ‘stray’ bullet that matters. Just some ‘stray’ chooks would do, to make a little difference in the way we see, hear and feel and then perhaps think about this woman. She is unforgettable because the rhythmic values of the sequence are singular.



Black Music & Elvis

Luhrmann’s Elvis is shown growing up in a poor, all black, rural neighbourhood, absorbing black music as a child and later in Memphis, as a teenager. The best way I can situate Elvis within his rich heritage of African American music is by following the ideas in Margo Jefferson’s celebrated essay, “Ripping Off Black Music: From Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice to Jimi Hendrix”.8 

Elvis’s mode of performance is encapsulated in his acute response made under duress; ‘If I don’t move, I can’t sing.’ It’s that very movement, and sound associated with black musicians, that was thought to corrupt Elvis’s most ardent fans, pure white Southern womanhood. 

“Elvis Presley was the greatest minstrel America ever spawned and he appeared in bold whiteface. He sang like nigger, danced like a nigger, walked like a nigger and talked like a nigger. Chuck Berry, unfortunately, was a nigger.”9

Elvis’s mimetic embodiment, absorption, of the kinetic dynamism of African American performance (both male and female), was an immense provocation to white America.  This was so because Southern white girls and even the occasional woman were moved to a Dionysian frenzy by Elvis’s sound and sexualized movements of hips and legs. Jefferson’s cutting dissection of his moves and speech is a backhanded compliment to Elvis who was no impersonator of black sexuality. Jefferson’s entire passage, as a piece of criticism, enacts those very rhythms in her repetition of the N-word, cracked so stylishly like whiplash.

“Elvis and his contemporaries shocked and thrilled because they were hybrids. What had taken place was a kind of Immaculate Miscegenation, resulting in a creature who was at once a Prancing Nigger and Blue-Eyed Boy,”10 

Jefferson’s brilliant idea of an ‘Immaculate Miscegenation’ speaks to the internalization of sonic rhythms and kinetic expressions across phobic ethnic lines in the racially segregated South. As an idea, it is quite unlike the 80s concepts like ‘appropriation’ or plane old ‘stealing.’ Miscegenation, the sexual intercourse between blacks and whites, was taboo in the US, against the law, on film too. And using it here in an aesthetic context gives the whole process a kind of validity and yet retains a sense of interracial violence and cultural exploitation.

Elvis’s Childhood

Luhrmann located himself in Graceland to conduct historical research in the Elvis archive, and also to visit Tupelo, seeking out a person who knew Elvis there. He has a keen understanding of the immense changes in African American politics and music since the 20s and as a director of musicals and opera, he also knows very different musical traditions from within. This is why he has those fundamental scenes of Elvis as a young boy, growing up in an all-black neighbourhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, hearing Blues sung and danced to in a tin-shed bar and simultaneously hearing a Baptist revival meeting in a nearby tent. He is drawn to the intensity of the ritual movements and singing (Gospel), and goes into an ecstatic trance himself while the congregation supports his initiation (a baptism), by guiding and supporting his body as he is entranced and finally exhausted. 

These embryonic-cell-like scenes are later swiftly intercut with the moments when Elvis, full of nerves, is about to go on stage in his pink suite, to sing to a large group for the very first time at the Louisiana Hayride. There is a moment there when Elvis’s mother, father and his musicians make a little circle to sing a hymn to reaffirm his mother’s feeling that ‘family is the most important thing of all.’ This white hymn scene is intercut with the ecstatic black singing in the tent at such a speed that Elvis’s mother appeared to be in the tent as well. I was able to locate her spatially only when I slowed the film down, thereby reducing its speed and texture. It makes sense because Elvis’ mother reassures him that his talent is a ‘god given gift’, and nothing to be ashamed of. 

Before the Colonel had met Elvis, he hears his voice on a record and radio more or less simultaneously, and thinks its black music. His eyes widen with a new thought when he is told that the black voice is really that of a white boy sounding black. That scene at the carnival ground, lit up by Elvis’s recorded voice, is a fine sonic montage exposition on what racial segregation meant in the deep South in the early 50s and the vitality and commercial power of the emerging youth pop-culture in America, nourished by African-American musical rhythms (simultaneously carnal and sacred), crossing phobic race lines.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Well, it does in a fashion in Elvis. Beale Street Blues of 1916 by W.C. Handy is named after Beale St, downtown Memphis, Tennessee. James Baldwin paid a tribute to this iconic song and street in his 1975 novel, ‘If Beale St Could Talk.’ In Barry Jenkins’ 2018 film of Baldwin’s novel, he summons up the great African American writer-activist with a direct quotation from his novel. 

“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street. Whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.”

With respect, care and camp flare, Luhrmann takes up this legendry history of African American creativity under immense duress, in the long sequence set on Beale Street, Memphis Tennessee. It is there that the teenaged Elvis is shown to have imbibed its urbane African American musical and sartorial styles and dynamism, which he crafted to make his own. 

The Beale Street scene was constructed in a Gold Coast Studio. All that was required for the plot was maybe two blocks but Luhrmann created six, so that the actors had the sensory feel and texture of an entire bustling urban environment to inhabit and draw from. Elvis glides through this neighbourhood in his Cadillac, weaving through fans calling out to him, stopping to sign autographs and ends up in a club upstairs with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), listening to Little Richard (Alton Mason), rock. The scene culminates with the well-known photo of King and Elvis together. Some folks don’t like these scenes because they’re ‘all rosy, no thorns.’ But Luhrmann packs in a whole lot of vibrant, textured details, again quite fast paced impressions of commercially prosperous, urban, Southern black life, not a ghetto with guns and drugs. It is there too that we hear and learn about Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) singing Hound Dog and Sister Rosetta Tharp (Yola), wailing the blues. 

Luhrmann’s ‘Beale Street’ is his Australian tribute to African American music, street life and vitality sustained by entrepreneurial flair. It takes a foreigner to present this, by now very well-known history, through an emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating, unusual aesthetic style. 


Luhrmann does not use green screen technology with his actors.12 He has all the African American extras flown in from the US during Covid quarantine! It is evident that his theatrical training and instincts enrich Oz cinema in surprising ways. He and Martin have worked with analogue, hand-made three-dimensional sets and models as their first preference rather than using CGI, which when they do use, is done sparingly, as a sketch. They also get bespoke Panavision digital anamorphic lenses to shoot Elvis’s shows in Vegas, rendering a slightly distorted space of artifice in the theatre. The split screen seventies look is created with bespoke lenses that are less crisp and clean, than the ones used currently in the industry, so as to create the feel of the hand-ground, analogue lenses made with hand eye coordination (not computerised), like Stanley Kubrick did.

I have theorised Luhrmann’s practice in directing some actors, at specific moments, as Acting-In-Strobe. That is a mode of high-energy movement, combining high-speed-editing, to glimpse a gesture, an expression or anything-whatever. It’s like the way light catches a faceted strobe mirror ball, making it glisten for a second. It’s a very physical form of rhythmic acting, working with speed of editing and instant appearance and recognition of a type, by the viewer. I believe he uses it in ELVIS to capture a nano-second of intensity of a fragment of cloth on Elvis or a glint here and there. It’s a kind of acting-with-editing, for quick changes of perspective and camera angles capturing nano-seconds of particles of energy enfolded into the film’s varying textures of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

 Undoubtedly, Austin Butler’s pathos filled, brilliant embodiment of Elvis is at the heart of the film’s success. It is extraordinary that he dedicated two whole years preparing to play this role. He says he grew up with his grandmother, hearing her favourite Elvis music. When researching for the role, seeking an emotional connection with the star, Butler learnt that Gladys Presley had died when Elvis was just twenty-three, which was also his age when his own mother had died! The audition tape Butler sent Luhrmann to demonstrate his skills as a singer was Unchained Melody with which the film ends.13 

The Culture-Industry Carnival: Las Vegas 

The etymology of the word Carnivale is farewell to flesh, referring to the festivities before the arrival of lent in the Christian calendar, with fasting, and mourning the death of Jesus. The Roman pagan Saturnalia is the feast of misrule where social conventions of class and status are played with as a safety valve, before returning to every-day normality. So, on one hand, there are visceral intense moments and then a sense of emptiness after the show is over, a heightened awareness of time as intensity and declivity, like the last short of flickering lights at the very quiet ending of Elvis

In the 19th Century industrialization of popular entertainment, the various skilled travelling performers of Europe and US such as clowns, acrobats, jugglers, singers, dancers, freak-shows, animal acts etc were gathered together to perform in structured venues in urban settings, using the new technology of electricity, working for a modest wage. The circus, music hall and vaudeville were the result of this industrialisation of popular culture. It is their residue which we see at the beginning of the film in the Colonel’s carnival ground.

While politicians and law enforcement attacked Elvis for performing in a degenerate way, what was striking was how Austin Butler and Luhrmann presented him as a naïve. That is, he appears not to be aware that he is being sexually provocative, at least at first. He says his movements come from the rhythms of the music and that it varies accordingly, he wasn’t consciously aware of it, he didn’t choreograph his movements, they came directly from within his nervous system unmediated by intention and will.14 This is where the child in the revivalist tent in a trance state is plugged directly into the young singer’s nervous system. The fast, textured, cross-cutting makes this connection viscerally. It is also repeated when Elvis sings the phrase ‘coming back home’, in ‘Unchained Melody,’ with quiet intensity. Clearly, singing and music carries Elvis away into a trance state where his conscious self does not control his body and voice. 

Female Fans – Libidinal Agency

The film presents the shockingly remarkable emergence and evolution of Elvis’s female fans, enabled and also controlled differently by the everchanging technologies of mass-reproduction and amplification of sensation and affect, even as both the performer and fans grow up and age. The utterly spontaneous eruptions of ecstatic screaming and uncontrollable movements of girls in the early live performances in the South, become dreamy when viewed on TV in a middle-class living room. The 1968 Elvis come-back on live TV in a small studio, presents a well-groomed and coiffed older group of young women dressed in pastel shades, surrounding the leather clad Elvis’s tiny square stage. There is considerable delight and swaying to his rhythms, and yet they clap only when they are prompted and their sounds are quieter, not hysterical and certainly choreographed. It’s in Las Vegas where we see mature men and women (and the odd youngster), most of whom have in all likelihood followed his entire career. 

Elvis says that his big show in Vegas with the thirty-piece orchestra was no nostalgia ride but something new. Similarly, Elvis’s embroidered, camp jump suits and Captain Marvel Junior Super Hero capes (which weighed a lot with the Rhinestones), and decorative belt-buckles combine with his new Karate moves to ground his body, giving strength to his voice to soar. He creates powerful rhythms and beats from the large range of instruments. Now three African American female backup singers are smoothly incorporated into his big band sound and along with a few African Americans among a sea of white faces. Elvis in Vegas is not emotionally easy viewing. I loved his singing (the mature baritone voice deeper and richer, still able to reach a falsetto), but felt very tense, anxious for him, afraid that he would fall at any instant, as he did and brutally revived medically under the Colonel’s orders endorsed by Elvis’ father, so that he could keep on keeping on until his body fell apart.

Learning from Las Vegas?

Have we learnt anything from Luhrmann’s Elvis in Las Vegas? Much high theory was written about learning from Las Vegas, including its onetime postmodern architecture and how capital cannibalises and regenerates itself through cycles of booms and busts, by continually demolishing and rebuilding hyper-urban, neon-lit environments, even luring starchitects.15 But washed-up performers crack-up and fall down because of organic frailty, unable to survive the relentless ‘booms and busts’ pumping their body with legal prescription meds. 

It is a shock then when, at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour carnival ride (more than a third of it in Vegas), we finally do see the actual Elvis, now very over-weight, sit down to play the keyboard and sing Unchained Melody with such abandon. By showing the real Elvis, rather than Butler’s Elvis, the film makes one’s heart leap even as one watched with anxiety Elvis perspire profusely and reach deeper and deeper, unchaining time and memory. No simulation this, in the garish Vegas showroom. When, as he finishes a cadence he looks up, once or twice (his assistant standing beside him holding the mike), and smiles a childlike sweet smile, he breaks our hearts.


Pain is the leitmotif of Elvis in counterpoint with the heartfelt exuberance, and spin. One feels a sense of a very precious (intercultural) gift, that of a musical prodigy, laid waste. Anaesthetics and aesthetics powers the mature baritone voice of Elvis (a range exceeding two octaves), and his devoted body of fans (now including men), keep sustaining him with full-houses from 1969-1976. His desire to travel and play to foreign live audiences is crushed, his body broken by unbearable over-work. Then, the Colonel is able to sign a contract for Elvis to be trapped in Vegas so that his own gambling debts are redeemed and he has an unlimited line of credit plus fifty percent of Elvis’s salary. As Priscilla summed it up before she left him, he was a ghost in-between the shows. The lethal ‘contract’ the Colonel drew on paper napkins with the owner of hotel, seated in the auditorium, speaks to an earlier era of mass culture in America, prior to the pre-war robust Fordist mass culture of Hollywood, coming to an end in a new era of neo-liberal capital accumulation just gathering steam in the 70s.16 

In the early era of the beginning of cinema at the turn of the 19th Century, European immigrant entrepreneurs in retail rag and fur trades moved swiftly into the popular picture business to make a quick buck. Thus began the Nickelodeon boom of early film culture in the urban centres of America and rural areas in tents beginning around 1906. Business deals were made on the run before it was formalised as an industry centred on this strange immaterial, not quite object, capturing and capitalising on it through the formation of an industrial cinema and its oligopolies, beginning in around 1915. There is much of that early, entrepreneurial ‘carnival ethos’ in the way the Colonel managed Elvis’ career without betraying any feeling for the show or nurturing his creativity. 

Luhrmann said that in making the film he was interested in both the ‘show’ and the ‘biz.’17 This is why he gives Colonel Parker a central narrative function. But finally, the carney too is caught out in his gambling with capital, destroying his one asset prematurely and also losing all his money to his gambling addiction and hanging out down and out in Vegas. While one gets a clear sense of Adorno’s idea of the ‘Culture Industry’ as a progressively integrated and administered structure in America18 (and now more so than ever in the new digital global informatic regime of control), the film is not entirely constrained by this regime of capital because of the Australian based couture practice and the States and Federal Government subsidies for the local film industry and the trained personnel and artists, subsidised by the tax payer, at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. This durable material infrastructure of the sensible, enables BAZMARK to resist standardised filmmaking practice as very few can now. 

Meanwhile the Jackson Five are emerging, someone announces in the film. That phone call to ‘Mr Presley’ from Mahalia Jackson, inviting him to a gig in the South hurts, when we hear him say resignedly, the Colonel won’t let him leave. Just something about that sweet childlike smile on his face as he sang one last time makes him appear very transparent, egoless (still plugged into that intense ecstatic boy drawn to the Pentecostal ritual), through whom cliched and loved pop songs (with their durable roots in American folk traditions), take on gravity and grace. Their emotional appeal is keenly felt even now. And the emotional wrenching and excitement I felt watching it, impelled me to write this piece about Luhrmann’s very Australian ELVIS.


  1. David Harvey, “Value In Motion,” New Left Review, Issue 126 (Nov/Dec 2020,): p.  99-116. 

    Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). Through these texts I understand ‘value’ as a multifaceted idea with economic and ethico-aesthetic and spiritual dimensions. 

    My thanks Adrian Martin and Meaghan Morris for their brief exchange on ELVIS, on my Face Book page soon after seeing it, especially Adrian for having sent me his first impressions, Their immediate comments spurred me on to find a way to write on ELVIS, despite trepidation about my lack of musical knowledge, though we jived to Jail House Rock in the 50s Colombo. My views, however, diverge from theirs’.

  2. Laleen Jayamanne, “Drover’s Wives and Camp-Couture: Baz Luhrmann’s Preposterous National Epic,” Studies in Australasian Cinema, Issue 4:2 (2010): p. 131-143. The idea of a couture craft practice was first developed in a paper for the conference on the film Australia at the National Museum, Canberra, 2009.
  3. Caris Bizacca, “ELVIS: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin and Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS,” Screen Australia Podcast and transcript, (17 June, 2022). All technical information is from this source.
  4. Laleen Jayamanne, “To Leave the Factory with Cloth and Film” in Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), ch. 2. The links between celluloid, light and cloth are conceptualised there. While tactile sensations of touch permeate the surface of the body, the haptic is a singular power of the human hand able to differentiate subtle sensory inputs, aiding sensuous abstraction. The composition of colour for each mass-media era and milieu in the film can’t be discussed here. But I wish to note the unusually marvellous colours of the carnival fair-ground booths, which conjure up the magical impact of the carnival on European avant-garde theatre, especially the Soviet-Russian. In that lineage, Luhrmann pays tribute to it via this exquisitely coloured memory.
  5. See a discussion of this idea derived from Quantum Field Theory of David Bhom, in the film Infinite Potential; The Life and Ideas of David Bohm (Paul Howard, 2020). See, “On the Production of Subjectivity,” in Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis; An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (Sydney: Power Publications, 1995), ch.1. His comment, ‘capital smashes all other modes of valorisation,’ is made in the context of exploring several modes of subjectivation that resists its logic on a knife edge. Elvis in Vegas offers Luhrmann the perfect incubator to explore how capital 

    entraps a prodigious talent in a cage of light and destroys him. But he also shows how, in the very heart of its violence, the singer’s creativity, so deeply plugged into the love of his fans, generates unforgettable intensity of singing, against all odds, even as he is dying at forty-two.

  6. Jayamanne. See ‘Shahani and Baz Luhrmann; Directing as Choreographic Act,’ in Epic Cinema, op. cit. ch.7. Luhrmann and Kidman collaborated to create a camp-burlesque farcical style.
  7. Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? Vol. 2. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 99.
  8. Margo Jefferson, “Ripping Off Black Music: From Thomas Daddy Rice to Jimi Hendrix,” Harper’s (January, 1973): pp. 40-45
  9. Ibid., p. 40
  10. Ibid., p. 40
  11. Jayamanne, See Epic Cinema, op. cit., for an elaboration of Acting-In-Strobe in relation to Moulin Rouge, pp. 172-73. See the idea developed in relation to Australia, in “To Derail thinking: On Shuttling Between Australia and India as a former Ceylonese,” in Gender Media and Modernity in the Asia-Pacific, Catherine Driscoll and Meaghan Morris, eds. (London: Routledge, 2014), ch. 7.
  12. Bizacca, Caris, op. cit.
  13. Luke Goodsell, “Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler Interview,” ABC Arts, (Mon. 27 June, 2022).
  14. Barba and Savarese, op. cit.  See also “A Second Nervous System,” Jayamanne, (2015), ch. 7.
  15. Venturi, Robert and Denise Scott Brown, Steven, Izenour.  Learning from Las Vegas, (Mass: MIT Press, 1972). I couldn’t resist my subheading but have no interest in pursuing its argument about the vernacular decorative neon facades of Las Vegas and critique of high modernist architecture. However, Elvis’s Vegas shows are very Vegas in its decorative aesthetic excess, but in ELVIS he functions as a ‘pure memory’ or ‘virtual image’ with the weight of duration in the Bergsonian sense, for his old fans. 

    Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry In To the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge Mass, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). According to Harvey the 70s marks the end of Fordist mass culture. It appears that Elvis arrived in Las Vegas at a crucial transition point in how mass culture and capital functioned. The International Hotel was just built and Elvis its main attraction but the way the deals were done by the Colonel are more hit or miss bargaining, as in the early days of the Nickelodeon boom.

  16. Harvey, 2020. op. cit.
  17. Goodsell, op. cit., ABC Arts, Mon. 27 June, 2022.  This Article quotes Luhrmann.
  18. Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1995), p. 120-167.