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In the final, heartbreaking moments of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic, we watch a bloated, sweaty, drug-addled Elvis (Austin Butler) perform “Unchained Melody” while accompanying himself on piano. The scene is based on—and includes actual footage of—Elvis’s performance of the song at a June 21, 1977, concert in Rapid City, South Dakota, just two months before his death at 42. The scene packs an emotional punch.
The song itself is part of what makes the scene powerful. “Unchained Melody” is essentially a hymn-like liturgy that seeks secular transcendence in a ballad about lost love, loneliness, and impermanence. But the context in which Elvis sings it makes the song even more poignant. Visually he looks halfway between life and death: still an immense talent, yet worn down by the excesses of fame. As he sings the iconic lyrics, “Lonely rivers sigh, ‘Wait for me, wait for me,’ I’ll be coming home, wait for me,” Elvis could be talking about Graceland or heaven. His “sigh” is one of resignation and exhaustion akin to Psalm 90:9 (“We bring our years to an end like a sigh”), signaling an awareness of finitude and readiness for the end—like the yawns we can’t fight when we desperately need sleep.
As a moment of liminality between this life and the next, it’s a fitting end for a movie that—in style and substance—positions Elvis as an icon whose groundbreaking musical fusion arose from the alchemy (friction?) of opposites colliding: heaven and earth, virtue and vice, worship and idolatry, spirit and flesh. Perhaps the biggest war within Elvis, however, is the tension captured in the film’s final scene: between the “all flesh is grass” fragility of time-bound life (Isa. 40:6) and the eternity-in-my-heart (Eccles. 3:11) ache for immortality and unfailing love.
Man and Myth
Elvis (rated PG-13) captures life’s ephemeral nature in its structure and pacing. Though largely chronological, Luhrmann’s film is less about “this leads to that” storytelling as it is about iconic moments—defining phases and turning points in the artist’s life and career. Though not a musical, the film shines most in its engrossing performance scenes, from Elvis’s 1968 Comeback Special to his Vegas debut to the aforementioned final performance of “Unchained Melody.” Butler nails Presley’s voice, moves, and intensity—made all the more kinetic through Luhrmann’s trademark hyperactive editing and aesthetic maximalism (see also: Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby).
Sure, by condensing Presley’s 42 years into 159 minutes, factual liberties are taken in service of the spectacle’s overall effect. In some ways, Elvis the actual man plays second fiddle to Elvis the myth. But that’s part of the point. For most people, Elvis was never a man to be known in reality as much as a myth to behold via media. He “lives on” not in physical reality as much as mediated spectacle: Spotify songs, YouTube videos, Warhol art, wax museum statues, posters in 1950s-style diners, and Vegas kitsch.
No life lost can ever be rendered in factually perfect relief. Once we die, our story is necessarily relegated to the realm of half-true memories and partial reconstruction. Whether in the hands of a diligent historian, beloved family member, or whimsical filmmaker, the story told about us after we die is always part fiction. It’s true for Elvis and it will be true for us, at least this side of being “fully known” in heaven (1 Cor. 13:12).
Reaching for Eternity
Elvis is haunted by life’s finitude, but so is everyone else—even if they don’t express it with the same leather-clad, hip-swiveling fury. Luhrmann highlights this universality of time-bound angst by making a surprising choice. He tells Elvis’s story through the narration of the artist’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), whose own ambitions of immortality are bound up with Elvis’s.
Though Elvis’s motives are perhaps purer than Parker’s (Elvis is about the music; Parker is about the money), they’re both driven by a sense that time is running out. What can they do, in this mist that is life (James 4:14), to make a mark? As Parker tells Presley late in the film, “We are the same. . . We are two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity.”
Few people today remember Parker, who died a lonely and sickly man, putting his fortune into slot machines. By contrast, we all remember Elvis. But is his fate really that much more encouraging? He also died lonely and sickly—mortally wounded by unhealthy habits and a broken heart. He “lives on” in cultural memory and historical impact, at least for now. But with enough time, that will fade.
Does Elvis live on in the eternal, heavenly, true sense? We can’t know for sure, though Christian faith is part of his story and shows up especially—sometimes explicitly—in his music. Luhrmann only tangentially references it, however, mostly in terms of Elvis’s fondness for black gospel music and pioneering artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola). An early scene, showing a young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) filled with the Holy Spirit in a black Pentecostal church, situates him firmly within the intertwined narrative of church music and pop music.
Elvis ‘lives on’ in cultural memory and historical impact, at least for now. With enough time, that will fade.
Yet Luhrmann never explores Elvis’s Christian faith as a reality of spiritual significance in his life (or death), only a reality of musical influence. Perhaps that’s why his death is framed wholly in terms of pop culture legacy rather than spiritual destiny. If his “soul” lives on, it’s in the soul of music—nothing more. But where’s the consolation in that, especially for Elvis himself?
Imagine telling a young Elvis, Tom Parker, or any young person today burdened by the quest for meaning, “Don’t worry, your only consolation in life and death is that you might do something spectacular with your brief life and be remembered for a brief time thereafter, even if you yourself cease to exist and won’t be around to enjoy that renown.”
Infinitely more consoling is the answer of the Christian catechisms: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Our hope is not in what we own or how we are remembered, but in who owns us and remembers our sins no more (Heb. 8:12). Thank God.
Our hope is not in what we own or how we are remembered, but in who owns us and remembers our sins no more.
Luhrmann’s film seems to conclude that the “eternity” Elvis reached for exists in his ongoing relationship with fans and enduring influence on pop culture. The still image from the film at the top of this article, which feels vaguely reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” hints in this direction: Elvis as hallowed creator, still “reaching out” to inspire us today.
But that relationship will one day end. For Elvis and all of us, what will finally matter most is not who we reached out to, influenced, or inspired by our brief blaze of glory, but rather Who reached out to us, saved us, and drew us into a glory that will never fade.