Elvis, George Michael, Psychology & Existential Theology – Caught in a Trap

You can read my reviews of Elvis and George Michael: Freedom Uncut in The Psychologist by clicking on the link below. Below this is an extended remix article version with references. Given its focus on mental health and film this fits within our British Academy Innovation Fellow blog series.

Caught in a trap – The British Psychological Society (bps.org.uk)

‘What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.’

Kierkegaard, Either/Or

If you believe you’re a poet, then you’re saved.

Gregory Corso

My fate cannot be mastered; it can only be collaborated with and thereby, to some extent, directed. Nor am I the captain of my soul; I am only its nosiest passenger.

Aldous Huxley

Millions cry with Elvis Presley and George Michael songs and still mourn their deaths. In one magical song, George Michael mentions a phrase that sticks in his head, ‘if Jesus Christ is alive and well, then how come John and Elvis are dead’ (Ref. 1.); some have since said this about George Michael. My first poetry chapbook The Day Elvis Died (Poetry Monthly Press, 2001) (Ref. 2.) reflects on my mother’s tears on that fateful day. But, as Robbie Williams sang, ‘Every tear that you cry/Will be replaced when you die’ (Let Love Be Your Energy), reminding me of Revelation 21:4 and Isaiah 25:8, ‘he will wipe away every tear and death shall be no more’. What struck me from what I shall term ‘experiencing’ Elvis (Baz Luhrmann, 2022) and the ‘new’ documentary, George Michael: Freedom Uncut (George Michael and David Austin, 2022) was how alone both stars were, but how this loneliness brought much of the world together.

In George Michael, Liam Gallagher calls George Michael the co-director a ‘modern-day Elvis’. We might suspect this of being Mancunian hyperbole but, despite being initially a cheeky lad from Finchley, George Michael had more number one hits in America than the UK making him, like Elvis, more of an international star. Both stars had friends, family, hangers on, screaming fans, but through two significant bereavements each felt alone. The loneliness of these stars is tragic, provoking tears, but affirms what can be a positive existential truth from Sartre – we are all condemned to absolute freedom in our aloneness.

While this may sound cool, on second thoughts do we have absolute freedom, are we alone? Authenticity is an important concept in existentialism and in person-centre counselling, but it is deeper than just being yourself. Interestingly we go to the cinema, in part, to lose our self. By doing so we may lose elements of our existential angst and dread which exist due to human freedom and responsibility. Then we find our deeper authentic transrational self, the part of us that has feelings. But these feelings from films are controlled feelings, unlike feelings outside film (Ref. 3). There is a significant difference – these cinematic feelings are safe feelings. Outside cinema, they are less controllable and controlled. In the cinema we hand over control.

Elvis (Austin Butler) discovers he wants to be his authentic self, rather than singing Christmas songs in a dodgy jumper on the Colonel’s (Tom Hanks) orders. George Michael transforms himself, and through his personal direction has his guitar and jacket blown up in the video to his hit ‘Freedom’. According to Kierkegaard, the commonest form of despair is not being who you are. Again, followers of Carl Rogers might relate to this. But for Jean Baudrillard, identity has never really existed which on one level is more profound and echoes Eastern philosophies, as does his view that all is predetermined due to over signification (Ref. 4). At the heart of both these films is which version of the narrative do we want to accept. In Elvis,Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the King of Dirty Deals, attempts to cover up his part in ‘his boy’s’ death through the hokey narration, ending the film by claiming we killed Elvis through our love for him. In the Colonel’s version, Elvis craves the fans’ adulation more than anything else. But in a parallel narrative, Parker kills him by forcing his cash-cow back on the Las Vegas stage, catching him in a financial trap. There is an interesting theory that Parker killed someone in Holland, so that is why he escaped to America without any trace of his former life, even rejecting his family when they made contact again, reinventing himself. To paraphrase filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, we become our self when we become our dream and Parker enabled Elvis to live his dream. For both Elvis Presley and George Michael, the dream eventually was a nightmare which is still part of the self, the shadow self in Jungian terms.

Normally in the cinema we are with people we know, or strangers. We are existentially alone, but the film gives us meaning. Film can enable us to forget our human separateness. We become one with characters on the big screen who teach us what we have internally lost when we are more focused on our doing over our being. This is an existential point. But we are also pleased a film has a limit, parameters and rules which are sacred. Cinema is a form of church and confessional. But we do not want to stay in the cinema forever. We want that other non-cinema of the doing self back, the one that experiences existential dread, otherwise the cinema self would not exist. Outside the cinema, with the dominance of surveillance technology and social media, this doing self is a performative self. In Jonathan Coe’s now classic 1997 novel The House of Sleep a character who wants to make a film plans to follow someone their whole life filming them. Both with Elvis and George Michael we are proffered sequences, fragments; no one knows the whole other, other than the Other.

Existential despair runs through several Elvis and George Michael songs. That Austin Butler was in an existential crisis after playing Elvis is understandable; after being Elvis for three years, not seeing friends or family, he was asking who he was. We see this in the George Michael documentary, where he is cut-off from reality by touring. He eventually manages to do a deal with his label to take 30 friends to Brazil. According to Elvis,the King wanted to tour the world, especially Japan, but the Colonel had no citizenship so prevented this, inventing security threat fears if they left America. This is the binary opposition Parker set up – us and them – to control Elvis. But it is through a non-binary approach to fear, holding the tension and moving beyond this tension as Jung describes in his work on yoga, that life can be fully lived. We cannot truly get rid of anxiety, that is not the point, but we can stop it overwhelming us and use it creatively.

We also get the sense that Elvis, despite the financial commitments, just could not stop performing. He needed the adulation, just as George Michael powerfully describes his red line that keeps moving up, fame being the beast that drives him on. As golfer Tiger Woods put it, too much is never enough. George Michael knows this is dangerous, but he implies it maybe uncontrollable; where do you go after being the biggest selling artist in the world which he was in 1988? Elvis follows the same route, with his hunger for the audience; he is still the biggest selling artist of all time.

Hanks is perfect for Colonel Parker. The young Forrest Gump (Michael Connor Humphreys) teaches Elvis his trademark dance in Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), played as an adult by Tom Hanks, adding to the casting significance of this Svengali figure in Elvis. In George Michael, the star reveals he suffered profound grief for three years after experiencing the death of his lover and mother. Mental health professionals are debating whether certain types of grief should be labelled pathological. What labels me, negates me is often attributed to Kierkegaard. Not adverse to labels, George Michael felt he had imposter syndrome a non-official diagnosis common with high achievers. Both Elvis Presley and George Michael were existentialist in a Kierkegaardian definition, because of the intensity they threw themselves into what gave them meaning (Ref. 8.). But it could be argued the intensity of their lives killed them.

Strangely, Elvis’s moment was thought to have passed in 2017 (Ref. 9.), but this new film reignites the younger generations’ interest in the King. Elvis Presley and George Michael were demonised for capitalising on African American music. Elvis and George Michael deliberately position their heroes as not usurpers of African American music but promoters. George Michael was also demonised for being gay which has been equated with sin. There are speculations over whether Elvis had mental health problems, but as far as I am aware he was never diagnosed. This is unsurprising. He came from the Deep South where mental problems were an aspect of sin, as was disability, so this would have been taboo. Some believed Elvis was evil because he sang African America music, that he was possessed by the Devil, and had the ability to possess others through his thrusting hips, gyrating legs, and Devil music, as Elvis so authentically shows.

And where does the sinful road lead within this theology – hell. Which, as Sartre put, is other people; but hell is also an absence of anyone to trust which Elvis and George Michael explicate so well. Another possibility is to trust, and for theologian Rudolf Bultmann existentialist philosophy is, ‘in line with the deepest diagnosis of human existence found in the New Testament’ (Ref. 10.). There is a profound message here as explained by Kierkegaard. What is essential to faith is not the objective truth about what one believes in, but our intensity of commitment, the subjective truth (Ref. 11.). And before we start thinking faith and prayer are akin to magic, let us consider Kierkegaard’s point that prayer is not about changing some type of God outside of us, but is more deeply concerning with changing the person praying. Despite or perhaps because of the trauma and sadness conveyed so well in both these films, what stands out profoundly is the passion of these protagonists to reach out beyond their trap of self.

References

1. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=c-GvAbPsarw

2. The Day Elvis Died : C. Jason Lee : 9781903031063 : Blackwell’s (blackwells.co.uk)

3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewpulrang/2020/02/13/disability-movies-arent-what-they-used-to-be-thats-good/

4 C.G. Jung, The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1932 by C.G. Jung (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1932), pp. 82-83.

5. Norbert Wiley, Emotion and Film Theory, Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 26, 2003, pp. 169-187.

6. Jason Lee, Celebrity, Pedophilia, and Ideology in American Culture (Cambria: New York, 2010), p. 141.

7. Normalizing Mental Illness and Neurodiversity in Entertainment Media: Quieting the Madness: Amazon.co.uk: Johnson, Malynnda, Olson, Christopher J.: 9780367820527: Books

8. David F. Ford, Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 25.

9. Suspicious minds: why Elvis’s posthumous popularity is plummeting | Elvis Presley | The Guardian

10. Charles Guignon, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Existentialism, ‘Authenticity’.

11. Ibid.

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