Elvis in Maverickland (SPOILERS: “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis”)

When “the Colonel” Tom Parker first pokes his head out the door of the Louisiana Hayride to lay eyes on Austin Butler’s Elvis, the pink-suited Presley’s being trampled by nerves like a church grandma on Thanksgiving night. He’s not ready to play to the fans at the festival, he thinks, so he gathers his parents and his sisters close and starts chanting “I’ll Fly Away.” The most famous musician of all time has a history with the spiritual, the movie reveals: He heard it at a Black tent revival when he was but a little boy.

“I’ll fly away,” Presley hums, conjuring the moments he spent “in the spirit.” I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away.

That night, before Parker’s very eyes, the weird white guy who spent so much time on Beale Street brings down the house — and nearly starts a riot — with a swift succession of smooth tunes and scintillating swivels. A star, in the Colonel’s eyes, is born, and he convinces the young Presley after the show to hitch his professional fortune to Parker’s wagon.

The union feels like the logical next step for Elvis, but it turns out to be the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. Thanks — we’re told — to Parker’s manipulation and the constant constraints of fame, Elvis spends the better part of Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic biography wishing he could fly away — figuratively at first, literally as the clock ticks away at Elvis’ will to live. Presley’s cinematic Graceland, and the world its owner builds to maintain it, is no playground, nor did Luhrmann build it to be one; it’s a slow-cooking cage.

Butler’s performance as the King waxes perfect and poignant; he seems to have barbecued his tongue on a Southern sauteé and baptized his hips in midcentury Memphis’ segregated pipes, yes. But he’s also a walking, humming, hollering metaphor for all the places we’d die to go, all the people we’d die to be, and all the reasons we can’t go there and be them. “There is nothing more important than security!” thunders the colonel, played by a painfully painted Tom Hanks, and there is no security in change.

Not to Elvis, there isn’t. Nevermind that Presley came into himself amid the Black music of Beale Street, living simply with his mother and father amid the white projects of Tennessee; to Luhrmann, it’s the Colonel, and the bright lights, that sap Elvis’ deepest reaches, vaporize his wildest dreams, and convince him all the while that his true home sits somewhere else. He won’t thrive in their arms, a near-biblical truth that he tells himself every time he tries to leave. But each escalation of the struggle between Parker’s self-declared snowman and Elvis’ showman ups the odds that the king might die in their arms.

Elvis might have died to be Captain Maverick Mitchell.

Captain Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, is already the polar opposite of Elvis the very first time we see him. When Maverick hears that a Navy admiral is on the premises to shut down a fighter jet program, he takes the future of his colleagues into his own hands. The program can’t be shut down if Maverick can fly at Mach 10, so he straps into the jet before the powers that be can stop him and lights off into the morning horizon.

It’s one of the purest, most beautiful sights I’ve ever beheld on a theater screen. Maverick is weighed down by grief, straitjacketed by the rules of road and regiment, and yet it all seems to drop away the instant he gets airborne. Cruise is living the greatest paradox in all of physics: He looks like a flaming booger from the left nostril of God, even as the world around him grows still and serene.

Maverick’s job in the film that bears his name is to train the best pilots the Navy has to offer in a mission that’s almost absurd in its intricacy and peril. But he’s not the safest flight instructor, or the most responsible. His tactics warp military aircraft beyond skyworthiness. There are confrontations with Navy brass when his methods end in madness. Then again, war isn’t safe, or responsible, Maverick points out. Besides, it’s tough to care about damaged aircraft when you run the risk of damaging humans.

The Captain compromises, occasionally; he changes his mind and he changes himself. But his changes of habit come from people, not pressure: He changes because responsibility has made Maverickland wider, and expanded his vision of what’s possible and permissible. It’s the transformation, first of his students and then of himself, that makes both the Maverick and his movie.

Of course, Captain Mitchell’s problems can’t stay earthbound forever; his grief and regret track him skyward, in ways both surprising and altogether routine. But he comes to terms with them as best he knows how — on his terms, for better or for worse.

As the walls of world and work close in on the Tennessee troubadour, Elvis’ attempts to leave the Colonel behind grow more desperate, more clear-eyed, and ever more tragic. He reaches, then lunges, for the dream of mounting his private jet and flying away on world tour, away from the constraints of his stateside contracts, away to a world he hasn’t seen since his days in the military. Tom Parker — who is “not a colonel, a Tom, or a Parker,” as his congressman is more than happy to point out — keeps him at bay with straitjacket contracts and hysterical excuses, while hiring doctors and dishers to douse Elvis with drugs when he feels too tired to go on.

But it’s not just money, or professional demands, that keep Elvis from taking off. In one of their last clashes, the Colonel rises from a chair to tell Elvis why he doesn’t really want to leave. “We are the same, you and I,” Tom Parker says. “We are two odd lonely children, reaching for eternity.” Leaving, the Colonel claims, won’t solve Presley’s problems, because Elvis Presley is the problem — he wants things that the bounds of Earth simply can’t deliver. Whether he leaves or not, Parker implies, his longings will surely follow.

Austin Butler stands there for a moment; Elvis, we’ve intuited, is completely thunderstruck. We also know something else in that moment: This is the last time in the entire movie his desires collide with the Colonel’s. His body doesn’t give out for several more years. Sure. But there are two ways to die — one is when your organs stop working, and the other is when your soul stops searching.

By the end of the film, no one cares how Elvis actually died; certainly not Baz, who doesn’t even film the man’s last three years on Earth. (Have we ever?) We already watched him die, in that moment, when he accepted all the things that would never happen.

During one conversation with a superior officer, we learn that Maverick has served in the Navy for thirty years. His record is absolutely exemplary, coincidentally. “Distinguished,” the mandarin repeats, on page after page of Mitchell’s military records. “Distinguished. Distinguished. Distinguished.” Cruise, he notes, isn’t playing up to what he’s capable of, to borrow a phrase from Madden’s Charles Davis — “a two-star general,” harrumphs the higher-up, “or a senator.”

Maverick shrugs. “This is where I belong.” Even when it means a promotion, he won’t let anyone tell him what to do.

Top Gun: Maverick gives us no clue how its titular character will die, even as he comes darn close again and again. Captain Maverick’s career, his crewmates, and his airborne ideals all threaten to precede him to the grave at turns, dead by his own hand as much as anyone else’s in the days before the mission. But Mitchell holds on to all of them, against all odds. He’s a Navy man, sure, but he’s also himself; the 30 years of service he’s put in, even before the very first scene, never managed to dry the last drops of his individuality. No, that’s not okay, as the admiral made clear, but it’s what makes him special. It’s why, we learn, he’s been called to educate the young aviators to begin with.

So, even if we have no clue how Top Gun’s hoary-haired hero is ultimately going to die, we know this: He’s not going to die without a fight.

Maybe he should have been the one on the elevator in Vegas.

There’s a movie theater in West Philadelphia’s University City, a marketing name for the confluence of the Drexel and UPenn campuses. It’s called the Cinemark; it looks like a spaceship from the outside; it charges national-average rates for a movie ticket, which is no guarantee in an East Coast city.

The first time I saw the Cinemark, it was an early December evening. (Early December.) Philadelphia’s Christmas lovers hadn’t broken out the candy canes; the haters hadn’t pulled out their trees, and so the non-celebrators had a few more weeks before they’d stick out like sore knees. (Philly, besides hosting Ivy League schools and the state’s second-biggest college, also happens to hold one of the largest concentrations of devout Muslims in the entire United States.)

I wasn’t in West Philly to watch a movie, though; I was there to interview a swim coach. He’d led the nation’s first — and best — urban-community swim team in the 1970s, even sending a pair of luminaries to the Olympic trials in later years, but his usual digs in Nicetown-Tioga were getting a renovation. So, he’d moved his operation to a Y in West Philly, mere blocks from University City.

Before and after our conversation, West Philly — including University City — passed before my eyes through the windows of a car. It was celestial, at least to me — second-story buildings flanked by train tracks; multicolored murals scaling to a cloudless sky; green-tech, glassy buildings boxed into an ancient cityscape. (It was also a miracle of urban planning; bikes got their own lanes on streets wide enough to accommodate them. In America!)

Down the street from Penn’s campus itself, there was a Giant supermarket beneath a sleek, modern apartment building. I’d never seen a Giant inside the city limits before; they had only just arrived, and more were soon coming. Here, as far as I knew, was the first Giant in the city, adorned with presence and purity due to its proximity. The city seemed to spell “important” two ways as we left University City: G-I-A-N-T and U-P-E-N-N.

B.B. King, the legendary blues singer and guitarist, shares a moment with Elvis at a Memphis club when the crowned king of rock and roll drops by to catch a show from Little Richard. Elvis’ — ironically enough — Black friend, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., points out that there’s a difference between being close to the top and not even being allowed to get there.

“I sing what I want,” B.B. explains, “where I want, when I want. And, if they don’t like it, I go somewhere else.”

In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the legendary writer George Saunders notes that, sometimes, a storyteller’s skill can outpace the frame in which they attempt to place a tale. It’s a feeling that you can get from Todd Phillips’ Joker, which tries to cast its titular figure’s twisted response to the mean streets of New York as emblematic of mental illness, or working-class struggle. Phillips tries, and tries brilliantly, as does lead actor Joaquin Phoenix, but neither can pull the wool over the fact that the Joker is the Joker because he wanted to be, because he altered his own interpretive lens.

Elvis’ problem is almost identical; you can sense it from the minute the tent revival begins to work its way across the screen. Presley’s surrounded by people with far less economic and political power than he has — the African-Americans of Memphis, and Mississippi, and dang near everywhere else. B.B. King, and Little Richard, and Mahalia Jackson, have had far harder ceilings placed on their careers than Elvis, even the Baz/Butler Elvis, can dream of, and have had the lights of their own minds pilfered by men who could make the Colonel blush — starting, bluntly, with the man crowned king of rock and roll. In every imaginable way, there are more forces at work trying to silence B.B. King, and Little Richard, and Mahalia Jackson, than Elvis will encounter in the entire film.

And yet, it’s B.B. King who refuses to let himself be tied down in one place. It’s Little Richard who leaves his signature sound unchanged, and it is Mahalia Jackson, not Elvis, who serenades the funeral of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest preacher of the 20th century, a man who, coincidentally, came a cropper “three miles from Graceland,” in Austin Butler’s own screen-bound words.

Maybe the reason Elvis felt so powerless at the top is because he found himself up there alone. Maybe political and economic power aren’t even the most important kinds of power. (Strap in, kids, we’re about to find out.) Maybe the power to keep going doesn’t come from money or fame.

In Judas and the Black Messiah, arguably among the best historical films of the last seven years, Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, declares, “Where there’s people, there’s power,” amid a struggle against the actual government of the actual United States.

Maybe that’s how you outlast a king.

We see Elvis alive one last time in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic, about a year after he loses his last battle with the Colonel. His doctors, his dad, or the Colonel himself — any of them can save him from the fate we know awaits him. But the person who tries is Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla, as he’s about to embark on a Colonel-approved national tour.

They can get the king to a clinic in California, she promises, desperately, the last soul in Elvis’ life who cares enough to try and stop this. He can be healed; he can be himself; he can be whole. “It’s all been arranged,” Priscilla points out.

It is impossible to overstate just how easy it would be for Elvis to join her, how far away he seems from the pills, the ploys, the powers that be. But Luhrmann, in an act of artistic genius summoned for the observant eye, has called for fog on the tarmac. Every inch of the world Elvis can embrace is shrouded in a cloud that can’t be bothered to rise up. You can only see the king, his erstwhile queen, and the jet that waits to take him away from her.

Elvis doesn’t even need the Colonel to convince him anymore; he chooses the jet. He’s nearly 40 years old, he tells Priscilla, having spent his life on things that no one will remember whenever he kicks off this mortal plane. He’s had to live without his momma, the implication goes, without the guidance from his business-manager dad, without anything to soothe his pain besides the pills. He’d rather not live at all.

“I’m all out of dreams,” he whispers, with that tone one step beyond desperation. It’s enough to let you know that he’ll always be caged, that he has no idea who he is, or who he could be — and that, ultimately, we don’t, either. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis can’t solve that problem, no matter how great Austin Butler is. But maybe that’s the point.

I can be pretentious from time to time. How pretentious? I was going to end this section with the Latin phrase “sic temper addictus,” but then I realized that addictus, in Latin, doesn’t refer to a substance dependency. The closest English phrase we have for addictus, today, is “sell-out,” and that made it even more perfect than before.

Elvis has sold out more people in his own movie than Sam Hinkie in a three-round draft — from B.B. King, to M.L. King, to his own wife. There is no Colonel when most of these sales take place, no heavily made-up Tom Hanks to keep his client caged. Elvis does most of the cage-building in this movie, and he does it while proving how unnecessary it really is: That trip to see Little Richard on Beale Street? The Christmas special, where he doesn’t sing any Christmas songs at the behest of two beatnik film producers? Every time Elvis chews the Colonel out, for being exactly who we all know he is from the beginning? Those are tragic moments, too.

They’re just not tragic the way they’re supposed to be.

Presley’s plight (which I’ve inexplicably written about before) is not unique to him; it’s not about a celebrity being hamstrung by his handlers. It’s about all the times we could have done the right thing, all the times we might have made someone important mad, and all the brilliant reasons we invented to explain why we couldn’t.

Come to think of it, we do know how Elvis Presley died: A little at a time, like nearly everyone else.

When the screening of Elvis wrapped up, I stepped out in the streets of University City in Philadelphia — a place that represents the stratosphere of American higher education. For a second, I had to wonder if I was even in the right city; the buildings were aggressively sleek, or beautiful, or modern, or some combination of the three. The masses that buzzed within them, a combination of Ivy Leaguers, STEM students, and people who’ve subscribed to the New Yorker since 7th grade, seemed like young adults from another planet — indulgent in the art of ego formation, yet so fully formed themselves. Even the churches exuded an odd enlightenment, strewn as they were with Pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs, the debris of a faith’s fender-benders with reality, an acknowledgement that our holy orders bend outward as much as upward.

That world, that street, and — perhaps most searingly, for me — that church belongs to a world I can call to; I can watch it on YouTube; I can read about it in the library. Maybe, someday, I’ll catch both of Philadelphia’s subway trains to see someone speak at Penn or Drexel. (Fmr. President Barack Obama? Elon Musk? Malcolm Gladwell? St. Augustine of Hippo, resurrected via nanotech? I don’t know.) Maybe I’ll catch a long train in search of a morning at church. More likely, the next time will be because of its celestial movie theater and comparatively subterranean ticket prices.

Whenever I return, it’s possible that no one will notice I’m there, or care. That’s just how you like it, when you write about things. (If you’ve ever written, or photographed, or tried to capture life, anywhere, in any way, you know what I mean.) But I’ll be wondering if I stick out — I always wonder if I’ll stick out. My wondering won’t stop me from going.

But the future felt so far away that night; I half expected to stumble upon a civil disturbance, with Roe v. Wade having just been overturned that morning. It would have been the perfect coda to the night, or — for Hollywood — the perfect way to end the month. Our art had copped so quickly to the concept of control; how could half of the country be losing their own?

Instead, the streets were surprisingly quiet, but for a few disquiet faces cursing the news in hushed tones. There was a woman, in a chicken restaurant, who might not have even been older than me — I wouldn’t know; no one seems quite young in University City. Her T-shirt bore the image of a baldheaded hunk in a pinstriped jersey, smashing a basketball through an orange hoop, on the January 1995 cover of SLAM magazine. Shaq — it was the second-largest word emblazoned on the shirt, nearly as big as SLAM’s logo. Shaq Daddy. But that didn’t stop me from asking a stupid Q.

“Is that Shaq?” I said, as I walked past where she stood in line.

“Yeah.” She didn’t even look at the shirt; a Magic fan, probably. Had something to say about Thursday’s draft, probably. Was waiting to say something about Thursday’s draft, or talk about Thursday’s draft, or critique Thursday’s draft, maybe. I’ll never know; I said something along the lines of “COOL,” and went back to what I was doing before.

There are a lot of beautiful, human sights at the end of Top Gun: Maverick; the fog of war, as the world knows, has a way of making small acts feel momentous. But Maverick isn’t just Maverick by the time the film wraps up; he’s not even Captain Mitchell. What he is, is a fully formed human being, at peace with who he is, what he does, and what it leads to. It’s breathtaking, really.

Top Gun: Maverick is far more diverse than its prequel. (What did you expect? America is far more diverse than it was when the original came out.) It is also, undeniably, a more beautiful movie, a more visually stunning movie, a movie that might make you cry four times in the theater and at least one additional time just thinking about it. I mean, Miles Teller from Whiplash sings “Great Balls of Fire” to a barroom of Naval Academy prodigies from all walks of life — women as well as men, every color, every region. What more could you possibly want from a movie that was made with the help of Lockheed Martin, than a message about how the martial life can force us to come together?

There’s a decent chance that Tom Cruise and Austin Butler will find themselves on an Oscar ballot next year. In fact, there’s a nonzero shot their movies will get nods and nominations for big-time awards. (I am not wrong about these things, by the way — ask anyone who heard what I said about Jessica Chastain.) The point of a movie, after all, is to carry you away from the moment, to make you think about a world you’ve never been to before. Both of these movies absolutely do that — you might not regret seeing either.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the first time Maverick flies away, like a booger out of God’s left nostril — in command of himself, if nothing else. Elvis might have died for a morning like that; maybe we should live for one.

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