I’ve seen most of the movies made of Elvis’ life and, for the most part, they fall short of what is standard for a movie.
Most just dramatize key scenes and do an overview, without ever showing events arising as a result of earlier scenes and choices that Elvis made. The best bio-pic that I have seen is Elvis Meets Nixon.
This movie focuses on three days and gives the most amazing look into Elvis’ life – there’s speculation and wishful thinking for the part of the day that Elvis spent in LA, but all other parts of the movie are based in facts.
Part of what makes the movie work is the use of real people and the actors playing he real people in the “documentary” part that provides the framework. Dick Cavett and Wayne Newton are inspired commentators.
Elvis’ life and career snapped into sharp focus for me, as did Elvis’ place in the fabric of society. When we realize that Elvis wanted nothing more than to be middle class, acceptable, part of mainstream, to make enough money to support his parents – all of his career choices make sense.
Elvis didn’t want to be a rock n roll rebel – he wanted to belong, he wanted to be Dean Martin.
Once he got onto RCA’s label and Parker wanted to move him to the mainstream so the money would roll in, Elvis went along with it, because he wanted to be loved and accepted. So of course he listened to Parker, who seemed to know how to talk to the northern business establishment who looked at Elvis like a freak.
Elvis let Parker drive away everyone who encouraged Elvis to be different – Sam Phillips, Scotty and Bill, Lieber and Stroller – anyone else who pushed Elvis to be an artist.
It may not be so much that it was Elvis, with Steve Binder on his side, standing up to Parker, as much as Parker realizing that Elvis was fading into obscurity and non-relevance and he had to let Steve think he was getting his way, so that Steve didn’t realize that Parker was making a deal about a soundtrack recording, which Binder never got a penny of, although he produced the whole thing.
One area of Elvis’ career that was particularly tragic was the quickie movies made just to put Elvis on screen and get cash from the starved for anything Elvis fans.
If Elvis’ movie career truly had followed the successful movie formulas, instead of becoming formula movies, the pairing of Elvis and Bill Bixby could have give Rock Hudson/Tony Randall movies a good run for the box office money.
Elvis’s own movies only seem back when isolated from the movies of the day – and his best movies completely stand the test of time – so in hindsight, Parker was actually right – to make Elvis a lasting entertainer, he needed to cater to the mainstream tastes, not remain the rebel rocker who’s light would have limited appeal and eventually, dim below remembrance.
Elvis’ sense of comedic timing was superb and he was very good at doing bits of acting business. In Viva Las Vegas, he engages in a lot of screwball comedy style banter, and when he pops the champagne cork, his Jerry Lee Lewis antics are hysterically funny.
Rock Hudson made a career of playing the gay/playboy with the heart of gold and Elvis should have made one of the naughty boy needing the right girl to make an honest man of him. There wouldn’t have been a dry seat in the house, had every Elvis movie played to that strength.
As it is, we have a film legacy that is largely unmatched, with the exception of his first film, he was the leading role and none of his films lost money. Often, they saved studios from failure and certainly were used to underwrite more artistic films that are not as watchable today, because of their more serious and dated sensibilities.
Film was the most appropriate medium for Elvis and we are lucky that his beauty was captured in technicolour, instead of the early 60’s being captured only in grainy black and white photos, had he come back and continued only touring and occasional TV appearances.
Parker’s short changing Elvis’s career certainly contributed to Elvis’ self destructive behaviours, but it was Elvis who never permanently fired Parker nor trusted his own judgment enough to take actual and long term charge of his own career. Elvis understood the power he had over the fans and he enjoyed it – his 50’s TV performances and his later self-parodies in the 70’s showed him at his playful best, testing the audiences and not quite being sure why his every move was so riveting – Elvis rarely used the power that his talent and fame brought him – expect to exert control over his Memphis Mafia companions – taking out his frustrations on them and then compensating with excessive gifts.
Elvis punished himself worse of all with impulsive and extreme behaviour in his real life, when he was not willing to express his extremes through his artistic output – had he been able to continue being outrageous musically and movie-wise, he may well have lived longer and healthier. But, being boxed into a generic actor and generic singer, Elvis’ outlandish side expressed itself in drugs, food and other binge-behaviour.
In listening to the recorded last conversation between Elvis and Red West, I was most struck with Elvis’ constantly referencing songs. Elvis understood the world through music, it was what he was and it defined his role in life. Elvis was in a constant state of existential crisis – he was trying to sort out why he of all people, was Elvis Presley, and he had a gnawing sense that there was something more he could be doing than just singing for people, without understanding that him just singing was what helped people to rethink public morals, rethink gender roles, to rethink how to be in society.
His gnawing sense was that he knew on a level that he was squandering his talent and not using them to best impact – but that would require him to potentially turn away people who didn’t like what he was singing. Elvis had been truly proud to serve his country, the two years in the military was his last and only adult time spent close to being a regular person. But even then, while Elvis did follow the rules, he never was a regular soldier – he was able to buy himself the best possible permitted gear, while the rules allowed for living off base with dependants, it was intended as spouse and children, not parent and grandparent and staff.
Elvis was happy when he got to play at being normal, but normal didn’t make Elvis happy, and his mother raised him with the expectation that he was special. No one ever made Elvis feel as special as his mother, and he lost her in the middle of the time he was being a regular soldier. As regular a soldier as Elvis could be, in any event.
Elvis didn’t do the things that regular people do – like taking responsibility for one’s career and family – Elvis left everything of his life to be taken care of by other people. Elvis was generous, but this was to compensated for his absence, his abdication, for other people allowing the rules of normal to not apply to Elvis.
It occurs to me that when people are brilliant in some way – intellectually or artistically – that there is a compensating lack in another area – and it seems to be in the social behaviour – so intellectually or artistically brilliant people tend to not be adept at social skills – so they are often absent minded and rude when intellectually brilliant or impulsive bingers combined with extremes of selfish/generous conduct when artistically brilliant.
Which makes sense, since intellectually brilliant is about logical process and artistically brilliant are emotional processes.
The white house staff thought that Nixon was insane when he agreed to meet with Elvis and his insistence that the meeting would help his image – Nixon knew that Elvis was th cool kid back in the 50’s and he didn’t understand why and Elvis weren’t relevant to young people in the 70’s. But, the photo of the two men shaking hands is the most requested item of any presidential library.
Nixon is considered an elder statesman and Elvis is finally being accorded the recognition due his vast body of work.