In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”, Yola becomes sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen. Hair and makeup by Sherita Leslie.
Yola knows what some music bosses will wonder after watching her in Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s latest spectacular film: why Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the woman who invented rock and roll and became one of Elvis Presley’s main black influences, doesn’t get much more than a few minutes performance of the witty “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” “Let’s just take a thread that we can ostensibly trace,” Yola begins. It’s late on a Sunday at Urban Cowboy, a hotel and bar in the heart of gentrified East Nashville , and she will give anyone who will listen a lesson on who came before the king: “She brought Little Richard out of a backwater in Georgia and gave him his rise to glory. If we don’t have this man drag-clad black guy who’s as free as he thinks he is, enough to inspire Prince” – her eyes widen as she imagines the alternate timeline – “then what if we don’t have Prince? We wouldn’t know what kind of post-apocalyptic musical nightmare we’d be in if we didn’t bring things to light.
But she doesn’t lose sleep over the film’s slight portrayal. Many black artists might have been reluctant to take on the minor role given to a major artist in a biopic that once again centers one of the most overexposed white men in music history. For Yola, it was simply impossible to pass up the opportunity to play a woman so central to the development of her own sound. Born Yolanda Claire Quartey, Yola, 38, launched her career in England with a 2016 EP spanning rock, dance and adjacent country folk. Soon after, she took to Nashville, performing at conferences like AmericanaFest, where she caught the eye of producer and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who signed Yola to his Easy Eye Sound label. His first album, 2019 cross the fire, was a commercial and critical success, landing it on editorial playlists and on the radar of film producers.
sing in Elvis, of course, came easily to Yola, who regularly belted Tharpe’s gospel classic “Didn’t It Rain” in the shower growing up. She could play on muscle memory and intuition, an asset Luhrmann saw when he hired her to cover a song for the soundtrack. The producers also knew she could match Tharpe’s voice, but couldn’t be sure how Yola, who had never acted before, would do on screen. Then came a recording session with Luhrmann on Music Row in 2019. “You could see his nose getting closer and closer to the glass, peeking and then giving instructions and then just staring,” she says. laughing. “Then he started taking pictures of me from different angles to see if my bone structure was a bit similar. So I’m already screen tested in the studio.
Yola isn’t Rosetta’s look-alike, but what she lacked in likeness she made up for in shrewd presence, rekindling Tharpe’s irresistible charisma on stage; the tilt of the head, the eyes to the sky, while his voice rises: everything is there. Yet fully channeling Tharpe – who first picked up the guitar at age 4 – is all about wrapping steady fingers around the neck of a Les Paul, bending the strings and distorting the sound… to play. “I wanted to go through exactly what it was like, physically, to do what she was doing,” says Yola, who had just over a year to develop her own chord-centric approach and master the technique of solo by Tharpe. She “wanted to know how hard it was”. The guitar was essential to Tharpe’s spiritual expression. She performed first with her mother, then solo, moving from gospel gigs and tentpole covers to nightclubs, honing her versatile electric guitar style at every stop. Now generations removed from a time when the guitar was the most practical instrument for creating music of many genres, black folk in the mainstream with six-strings tied to their backs is the exception, not the rule. “And you don’t know you miss it,” Yola says. “You do not know that you are the owner of an inheritance which is yours. And then you’re like, Wait a minute – now that I think about it, maybe it’s more our shit than anyone else’s shit.”
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen. Hair and makeup by Sherita Leslie.
In Luhrmann’s film, the cradle-to-grave arc of Elvis’ life is filtered through the lens of Colonel Tom Parker, his eccentric Dutch manager (played convincingly by Tom Hanks), who, in the years after Elvis’ death, turned out to have mismanaged the artist’s immense fortune. Yet it’s impossible to envision Elvis’ success without the shrewd influence of Parker, the former carnival worker who turned the clumsy kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, into a star attraction. The film does not focus on Elvis the man, but on Elvis the money-making machine, and in the context of the business, the exposure (and imitation) of Elvis to black creators of rock seems like a means to a necessary and very lucrative end. Cultural theft is not vocalized in the film. It is not obligated. Stages on the nose of Beale Street get the job done: there, a royal Tharpe rules a nighttime shop window, introducing the world to prodigies (like Richard) and future stars; Big Mama Thornton delivers her original and moving rendition of “Hound Dog”; BB King is Elvis’ ear and the official black friend.
There’s a sense that Hollywood knew better than to release an Elvis movie in 2022 without the black people who established it, but also that it didn’t know how to incorporate said black people without making Elvis look like the “greatest minstrel that America has ever fathered”. as famous black critic Margo Jefferson dubbed him in 1973. Yes, Elvis grew up in a black Mississippi neighborhood, and yes, he came of age in Memphis just as black blues, the gospel and soul merged in this hot new sound. called “rock’n’roll”. But the split-screen juxtaposing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (played by fellow respected musician Gary Clark Jr.) performing “That’s All Right” with Elvis’ attempt to match it note for note, inflection for inflection, n is perhaps not so honorific. as Luhrmann wanted.
Yola lived with Tharpe’s music for much of her life, discovering it in the caches of record collectors in Bristol, England. As for Elvis? “I wasn’t aesthetically drawn to him as an artist to give a damn,” she says. But stepping into her world as Parker saw it and Luhrmann interpreted it challenged her to consider less sinister reasons for Elvis’ mimicry. “You’re going to live on black shit if you’re only with black people,” she says. “And America is in love with the black stuff – surprise, surprise. So of course Elvis is gonna be like, I need more of this shit, and that’s his fucking reason for being all the time. She doesn’t blame him alone for burying rock’s roots. “The easy narrative is ‘He is the appropriator,'” she says. “No, the system is the fucking appropriator.”
Yola sympathizes with Elvis in a way too; he is portrayed in Luhrmann’s film as more a spectator of his own career than the tenacious king. cross the fire earned Yola Grammy and Americana Music Honors & Awards nominations and articles that flattered Nashville’s new talent with the big voice. She has been called a country star. But she was still new in town at the time, and success, she said, “wasn’t mine.” His sound has always been an amalgamation of styles and genres, indebted to the comprehensive culture of his hometown and the genderless nature of British radio. She’s spent the past two years building a trusted band, a cohort of co-writers, and a more cross-genre sound that better reflects her core interests — with influences as varied as Mary J. Blige and famed drummer black James Gadson. His second album, defend myself, released last summer, marked the beginning of a kind of artistic self-appropriation that she hadn’t had before.
“There is a recent trend of describing all black women [sic] who plays guitar and isn’t RnB/Pop like country”, Yola tweet days after speaking. “It creates a new monolith, erasing Americana, blues, roots, classic soul, and cross-gender artists like me who happen to be black women in adjacent space.” Folk rock artist Lilli Lewis suggested this Yola shoehorn in a genre that doesn’t fully encompass his sound might actually benefit him, because “there’s so much money in the country”, providing greater visibility. Except that Yola knows better than anyone that “it doesn’t work that way.” There are artists who will never have the luxury of being so chameleon in the way they are perceived. Not everyone becomes Elvis. Fewer still could ever do what Tharpe did.