During our weekend away, Tamie and I watched the film Ray, recounting the life of musician Ray Charles. It’s a biopic similar to another we saw recently, Walk the Line, telling the story of musician Johnny Cash. Both men experience a rags-to-riches rise into stardom, transcending socioeconomic lowliness, the traumatic deaths of siblings and, in the case of the famously bespectacled Ray Charles, lack of eyesight. Both men then become incarcerated in stardom’s snares, abusing substances and relationships. Ray Charles does not allow blindness to disable him but is instead crippled by heroin addiction. However, both men finally find redemption, with patient and long-suffering women standing by their sides. The two films have positive endings.
One of the books we found at our holiday accommodation was the Elvis Handbook by Tara McAdams. The beginning of Elvis Presley‘s story is similar to those of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. From humble beginnings, Elvis experienced a meteoric rise to fame and fortune. His volatile image and sound held untold power in the melting pot of American music and culture. Yet Elvis’ personal story is ultimately about loneliness and the insistence of sadness. By the time his eight year film career had finished, Elvis had become an institution, disconnected from his own cultural monolith, and his fame became an ever-lonelier place. Towards his life’s end, as McAdams puts it, Elvis himself became the first Elvis impersonator — a shell of his former self, only mimicking his earlier glory. He was finally consumed by his addiction to prescription drugs. The sheer monumentality of Elvis’ cultural icon is starkly offset by the hopelessness of his personal decline. His desolation is highlighted in Bono’s lyrics: “Elvis ate America before America ate him”. The end of Elvis’ life is dominated by degeneration. There is no happy ending.
Many of us are aware of the frailty of our lives and our selfish capacity to abuse ourselves and others. We console ourselves with the thought that redemption is possible. We find Ray and Walk the Line very appealing: they do not shy away from human decay, but there is always another chance to be renewed. Elvis’ story is different, making us ask what happens when redemption may not be found. What would an Elvis biopic be like? How would it celebrate his tenacious talent, the luck of his rising star, and the vibrancy of his music in light of his final degeneration?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.