Tied to the 45th anniversaries of Elvis Presley’s death and the release of the Sex Pistol’s epochal punk LP Never Mind the Bollocks, Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis and Danny Boyle’s six-part miniseries Pistol share more than the credit of writer Craig Pearce. Both are works by two of contemporary cinema’s most flamboyant stylists concerning two of the 20th century’s most revolutionary, culture-altering pop acts. Most curiously, though they obviously concern their respective artists, both biopics are propelled by the manipulations of their domineering managers: Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) in Elvis and Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) in Pistol.
Elvis is even presented through Parker’s cajoling, self-justifying point of view, as he insists that it was he who truly created Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), packaging the untamed sexual dervish who exploded into the American consciousness as the smoothed, family friendly unit-shifter who became a cash cow. And just as Parker exerts control over his client’s story, Luhrmann sublimates the aesthetics of Elvis’s time to his typical maximalism, with its disorienting digital suite editing and melodramatic explosions of light and color. Despite running an indulgent 160 minutes, Elvis moves at a breakneck pace to illustrate how quickly the artist was overwhelmed by the frenzy that greeted him, ultimately living his own life in the passenger seat.
Pistol likewise shows off Boyle’s penchant for visual flourishes and hyperactive editing, though he more closely ties his style to that of the punk milieu. Rapid cuts resemble the cut-up amateurism of deliberately shabby fashion and the influential hostage note look of the Pistols’ printed flyers and record artwork. Though based chiefly on the memoir of Pistols guitarist Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), the series regularly returns to the impresario-like pronouncements from McLaren as he uses an endless parade of controversial stunts to mold a band of shiftless working-class misfits into an object that exists simultaneously as a repudiation of ’70s consumer culture and a shameless perpetuation of it.
Lost in both works, though, is any real study of the music. Elvis has next to nothing to say about the alchemical blend of country and R&B that launched the star, much less the way his sound morphed with changing pop currents. Much more productive is the good faith attempt to engage with the Black music that so heavily inspired the singer. But Luhrmann repeats a distracting trick he used with The Great Gatsby, crossing historical and contemporary Black music, resulting in unwieldy hip-hop takes on blues songs like “Hound Dog.” Punk is a comparatively less mysterious invention, an outright attempt to return to basic, visceral rock, but Boyle fails to capture its essential attribute: the demystification of making music that showed listeners who could never conceive of mastering an instrument that all they needed was a few chords and a lot of attitude.
Indeed, the more egregious failure of both Elvis and Pistol is that they fail to capture the extreme social tumult that informed and was directly ignited by their respective subjects. Pistol reduces the rundown Labour state that birthed punk to montages of miserabilism, and it fails to register that the true story of the Pistols is less their own nasty, brutish, and short saga than the impact they had on those who heard them. The series also misses the chance to more deeply explore the revealing contrast between Johnny Rotten’s (an uncanny Anson Boon) inner turmoil of spiteful trolling vs his genuinely intellectual pursuit of rebellion and the purely empty nihilism of Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge). Likewise, Elvis replicates the unhinged frenzy of teenage girls who’d never heard anything like its subject, but does not connect that to a larger context of his inadvertent role in kicking off the sexual revolution and the defiance of Baby Boomers.
Copiously visible but not centered in either biopic is the extent to which their musicians were not merely exploited by managers, but how the art itself was also always subject to commercialization. Arguably no two pop acts of the 20th century better epitomize the ability of entertainment to actually reshape society than Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Conversely, no two artists better illustrate how a consumerist society will ultimately commercialize all acts of rebellion. Both artists have had every ounce of their danger sapped by the culture at large absorbing them. Elvis’s gyrations now look impossibly tame, and one cannot even fathom a group kicking off the furor the Pistols did by swearing live on air in today’s shock value marketplace. Like most biopics, Elvis and Pistol are attempts to remind you why someone mattered, yet they emerge as testaments to how much of our cultural memory is shaped by the suits behind the scenes.