“The central image of white popular music is Elvis Presley, demanding good times and getting them and finding them all too easy.”
Simon Frith, Rock and Popular Culture
Forty-five years ago this month, Elvis Presley left the building for the last time. For some people in my generation, remembering where you were and what you were doing the day Elvis died is like remembering where you were when Kennedy was assassinated or when an astronaut landed on the moon.
For me it was a particularly poignant musical moment that warm summer’s evening as I was strolling down San Francisco’s Polk Street on August 16, 1977, after having dinner at my favorite little Vietnamese restaurant on California Street named Cordon Bleu which (at that time) posted a sign in their window, “We’re not North, we’re not South – just Vietnamese.”
All of a sudden, from a small, open air club came an unmistakable sound: “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog…” But it wasn’t a male voice and it wasn’t an up-tempo rock and roll cover of the song. It was a slow and leisurely woman blues singer whose arrangement seamlessly blended the song into a medley with “Walkin’ the Dog” in the same tempo. And I’m talking of none other than hearing Big Mama Thornton, the first artist to record the song before Elvis made it a hit, sing it the day that Elvis died. True story.
Baz Luhrmann’s highly entertaining bio-pic entitled Elvis should have actually been named “Elvis and Me.” This would have eliminated oodles of confusion with regard to the story line and the fact that Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks), occupies just as much screen time as does Austin Butler, the actor who plays Elvis. But then this is a Hollywood movie, and when a megastar like Hanks signs on to a project it is not with the intention of being nominated in the best supporting role category.
But first and foremost is the casting of Elvis Presley and in Austin Butler, Luhrmann found his Elvis. Like the Broadway musical, MJ, that stars Myles Frost as Michael Jackson, the role demands an actor who can act and sing and in each case replicate the athletic and now iconic physicality of the singer’s performance style. Both performers nail their parts with spot on impersonations.
The two projects have one other thing in common. They both leave out the sordid bad and emphasize mainly the good. There is plenty of bathos in both of these biographies, but those story threads are well known and can be pursued elsewhere. Elvis may not be the true story, but it is the story that we wish was true.
Luhrman’s portrait of Elvis Presley is particularly careful when it comes to the question of cultural appropriation. He goes to great lengths to portray the adolescent Elvis as a non-racist Southern youth in his home town of Tupelo, Mississippi. Later in the film, during his early years as a recording artist, he is portrayed as an ardent admirer and fan of Black performers such as B.B. King (played persuasively by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (the wonderful Yolo Quartey) and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). Although the admiration is genuine, the dialog featuring Elvis interacting with these artists at some length at blues clubs along Beale Street in Memphis, with B.B. King acting as a kind of mentor, is complete fiction.
More to the point might have been his real interactions with a Black composer and singer of the period named Otis Blackwell (1931-2002). Blackwell composed “All Shook Up” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Return to Sender” for Presley. He also wrote “Fever” which became a blockbuster for Peggy Lee (after first being recorded by Little Willie John) and “Great Balls of Fire” which became a big hit for Jerry Lee Lewis.
Here is how the business worked: Blackwell would record a preliminary “demo” and send it through his manager to Presley. Elvis would then listen to Blackwell’s song style inflections and phrasing techniques before he re-recorded the songs and added in his own licks. Even after having huge hits from three Otis Blackwell tunes, there is no record of Presley ever reaching out to express interest in meeting the man in order to say thank you. In his later years, Blackwell put together a performance career by performing the songs that he had written, appearing on David Letterman and various rock and roll revival tours. To see and hear Blackwell during this period, it was difficult to know whether Presley was imitating Blackwell or vice-versa.
Sadly, of the 30 songs licensed for inclusion in Elvis, “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Return to Sender” are absent. Otis Blackwell was overlooked by Elvis Presley during his lifetime and not even given belated recognition by Luhrmann’s film after his death.
Readers who might want to hear more from Otis Blackwell himself on this subject can read Bill King’s illuminating interview with the composer in this issue of Jazz Report from 1987 that can be found here.
In the final portion of the film, there is an affecting segment that features the rehearsal and run up to a television special (referred to now as Elvis’s Comeback Special) that the singer recorded in June, 1968, meant to air in December for the Christmas viewing market. This was just two months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Popular legend has it that Parker felt that the lyrics to the song “If I Can Dream” (written by Walter Earl Brown) were “too political” and didn’t want the song on the special’s playlist. In the film, Hanks (as Parker) keeps asking when the rehearsal for “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” will begin.
But Elvis prevails, and under a huge block letter set that spells ELVIS, he performs the song as his closing number to the special. Standing upright with the mike in his left hand and absent pelvic thrusts and swivel hips, he sings a hymn-like anthemic rendition that clearly references King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”:
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true
As the song builds, Elvis holds his posture but with his right arm in a constantly circling motion, he starts conducting (exhorting really) the 30 piece orchestra and back up choir that performs in darkness behind the ELVIS set. His heart and soul are clearly pouring into the emotive message of the song which the following day critics would dub a “protest song.” I suggest that by this point in the film even the most cynical among us might have been reaching for a hanky.
Elvis Presley died tragically at the age of 42, and is today the best selling solo recording artist in history. But it was not the recording studio that killed Elvis, it was the grind of live performance whether touring or in a setting like the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The pressures are severe and Elvis is a cautionary tale that has been repeated often by far lesser lights who worked just as hard but died in poverty.
For a closer reading on the iniquitous dealings of the record business that turns art into commerce on behalf of corporate profiteers with their phalanx of A&R producers, agents, managers, lawyers and crooked accountants, see three classics of the genre: Stiffed, A True Story of MCA, the Music Business and the Mafia by William Knoedelseder; The Mansion on the Hill by Fred Goodman; and Me, the Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells by Tommy James.
Ma Rainey’s Black Botton, August Wilson’s 1982 stage play set in 1920s Chicago, is also an exceptional dramatization that vividly exposes the exploitation of Black recording artists by white producers.
Seeing Elvis on the big screen in a movie theatre is a great way to experience this film. However don’t be surprised if after leaving the building, you wonder just how much of Elvis was actually in it.