Consider a hypothetical: If you were making a biographical film about the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, and you were trying to decide what song should be used to punctuate a cinematic depiction of Presley’s time frequenting Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, what song would you use? On the surface, it might seem somewhat obvious that you would utilize a timeless track by one of the many blues legends that are forever cemented in history on that hallowed avenue, musicians that Presley himself often rubbed shoulders with. Maybe a song by B.B. King, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis or Otis Redding; maybe even “Crossroads” by Robert Johnson, a way to underscore Presley’s own crossroads by that point in this particular film, at which the siren song of fame and success is calling but its tune clashes with that of concerned family. Maybe you would do that. But you’re not Baz Luhrmann.
The first time I watched Elvis, the Doja Cat needle drop nearly made me laugh. It seems to propel out of nothingness, but it doesn’t. It fades in as part of a mashup with a cover of “Hound Dog” by actress Shonka Dukureh playing Big Mama Thornton, the song’s original singer and the song Elvis would later make famous with his star-making trademark fusion of blues and country. So, director Baz Luhrmann does score this sequence in Elvis’s life with a song by a Beale Street native. But Luhrmann does the song his way, in the only way that Luhrmann could: By mixing Dukureh’s cover with a modern, pop beat and a rap by the “Say So” singer.
If the soundtrack for Luhrmann’s last film, an adaptation of the 1920s-set The Great Gatsby including songs by Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, and will.i.am, was any indication, this was the only thing Luhrmann’s Elvis soundtrack was ever gonna be. Like Elvis’s union of disparate genres, Luhrmann fuses time periods. It’s an amalgamation of remixes, mashups (the fantastic “Viva Las Vegas/Toxic” remix featured in the film is inexplicably not included on the official soundtrack), covers by artists like Kacey Musgraves and Måneskin, Elvis-inspired original songs and Elvis actor Austin Butler’s voice fused together with archival Elvis recordings for his in-film performance. It’s a synthesis of past and present, and one of the best examples of this happens at the film’s 20-minute mark.
Let me set the scene for you: Twenty minutes into Luhrmann’s take on the late, great king of rock and roll—a gaudy, bedazzled epic that tries to outdo The King himself in scale, flitting uncaringly between sincerity, absurdity and sincere absurdity far bigger and grander than the kind of nauseating vulgarity Luhrmann had already become infamous for but, somehow, in the best way—we transition from one delirious sequence to the next. Bookended by Elvis having just performed at the “Louisiana Hayride” to an audience of women practically reaching climax in their seats, Elvis’ soon-to-be manager and the film’s unreliable narrator, devious Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), explains in his unplaceable accent Elvis’ roots in Memphis and the predominantly Black neighborhood he hung out in. The neighborhood was home to Beale Street, not far from the iconic Sun Records which fostered Elvis’ talents as well as those of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.
As articulated extensively in Elvis, the rock star grew up around Black folks and was enmeshed in the culture of Black music from a young age. Luhrmann does little to grapple with the scrutiny of Elvis’ legacy taking so extensively from Black culture, glossing over and extrapolating only the positives from these more lurid details instead of interrogating them in full (including his later courtship with 14-year-old Priscilla Presley). But Luhrmann doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring Elvis’s interiority more extensively beyond brief, maudlin scenes where tears are shed and voices are raised. Instead, the film seems most intent on creating a spectacle of Elvis to match that of real-life, as if building upon the myth rather than deconstructing it. Thus, we get an early scene meant to briefly communicate the dichotomy of Elvis’s life: Being a young white man who loved Black music.
In the montage, we cut between two parallel sequences. First, Elvis coming home from work to the lower-income, white housing complex where he and his family live, walking swagged-out in slo-mo with a guitar slung over his back. There, the white boys deride him for the company he keeps, the girls ogle him lustfully and his mother watches him with a mix of apprehension and fear from her window. Second, we see Elvis prowling his beloved Beale Street, vivacious and full of song, while the growl of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” backs the scene diegetically from Club Handy where she’s practicing the tune in preparation for a show. One of only a few white faces, Elvis floats around the lively Beale Street until he reaches his final destination: The suit shop, where a loud pink getup seems to practically call his name. Along the way, Thornton’s guiding voice gradually fades almost entirely to become a mere sample on Doja Cat’s confusingly titled “Vegas,” a song that builds off of “Hound Dog” rather than “Viva Las Vegas.”
Up until this point, there has been no inclusion of modern music to such an intrusive degree. There are some wild and period-inappropriate guitar inflections during the Louisiana Hayride scene, employed to further embellish the histrionic sexual fervor generated by Elvis’ gyrating hips, putting the audience full of women into a horned-up, nigh-religious trance. But as Elvis turns a corner on Beale Street, Doja Cat’s syrupy lilt suddenly encroaches boldly upon the film set, at this point, in the 1950s. She raps about a “fraud” and a “player” who only wanted her for the luxuries she was able to offer him, ultimately leaving her emotionally unfulfilled. On a first watch of Elvis, the “Vegas” needle drop is almost laughable in its abrupt appearance, so out-of-place and jarring in comparison to what’s going on in the frame and the year that it’s all taking place. But on subsequent watches, it’s weirdly poetic: The paralleling between Butler’s Disney Channel face, Doja Cat’s TikTok voice, and this movie they’re both in about the king of rock and roll who has inextricably influenced the pop culture that both artists are now a part of.
But the most striking thing is that, in spite of their contrasting sounds, Doja Cat’s “Vegas” has more in common with Big Mama Thornton’s original track than Elvis’ cover. Thornton told a story about a poor, lying man who plays pretend at being “high-class,” then takes advantage of women for material gain under the guise of romance; Doja Cat sings about the same, just updated for our current era. Elvis’ “Hound Dog” is less specific—he repeats the famous refrain, then accuses the song’s subject of never catching a rabbit, not being his friend and, like the original, of lying about being high-class. But there’s no longer any story to the song, only meaningless repetition and vagaries about a possible deceitful former friend. The cover relies mostly on the catchy tune and Elvis’ sheer star power, but it loses the meaning. Intentional on Luhrmann’s part or not, the “Vegas” needledrop subtly encapsulates Elvis’ legacy as an artist in constant conversation with Black culture. Doja Cat’s track ends up reclaiming the song’s origins; a slight, if insufficient acknowledgement of the erasure in Elvis’ ascension to stardom.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.