No musical biopic can capture every aspect of its subject’s life, but Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis gets closer than some, especially given The King’s incredible meteoric rise to fame. Sometimes authenticity has to be sacrificed or dramatic interpretation, but from Elvis Presley’s humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, to his final years in an extravagant penthouse in Las Vegas, the truth is stranger than fiction.
From giving focus to Elvis’s formative years spending time with Black musicians and honing his skills on Beale Street to his marriage to Priscilla Presley and of course, his professional relationship with Colonel Tom Parker, it’s amazing how much music, glamor, and facts Luhrmann packs into the 2-hour and 40-minute run time.
Elvis Grew Up Very Poor
The name Elvis Presley might conjure bejeweled jumpsuits and Graceland, his magnificent mansion decorated in gold baroque furniture. Elvis did not grow up in wealth, which is perhaps why he coveted such opulence later in life. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, he lived in a small shotgun-style house that his father, Vernon Presley built, and yearned to bring his parents out of poverty.
In Vacation in Biloxi, a film that contains some of the earliest home movies of Elvis, his childhood friends mention how he always intended to buy his mother Gladys a “pink Cadillac.” While many musical biopics feature a rags-to-riches story, this time in Elvis’s life is important to establish his principles, and why he yearned for financial success even if fame sacrificed his freedoms.
Elvis Spent Time On Beale Street
One of the best sections of Elvis involves Elvis spending time on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, a primarily Black community that would become his home away from home. He loved nothing more than to listen to the inspiring Black musicians like Little Richard, BB King, and Big Mama Thornton perform R&B and blues, which would become huge influences on his repertoire.
Even while making records for RCA, he would return to Beale Street, never forgetting his roots. This time period gives weight to later media encounters when Elvis acknowledges his heroes. He benefited from being more accessible to white audiences, but he gave credit. In his autobiography Blues All Around Me, BB King declared, “Elvis did not steal any music from anyone. He just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on, same is true for everyone.”
Tom Parker Was An Undocumented Noncitizen & Not A Colonel
Elvis was completely blind to the fact that everything he thought he knew about his manager was a lie. The controversies around Colonel Parker came to a head when the singer was about to embark on a World Tour but was waylaid by the Colonel who, as an undocumented noncitizen from the Netherlands named Andreas van Kuijk, did not possess a US Passport, and would not be able to return to America if he ever left.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Tom Parker was not born in Huntington, Virginia, and though he did serve in the US Army, he was never promoted beyond private. After 1932, he had “gone absent without leave” and served “several months in military prison for desertion.” Declared a “psychopath,” he was discharged from the Army, and when the draft was later introduced during WWII, he ate until he weighed 300 pounds and could be deemed unfit for service. Given these extreme examples, it is not difficult to see the character of the person who would think nothing of manipulating Elvis.
Elvis Was Very Close With His Mother Gladys
After her son Jesse died at birth, Gladys poured all her remaining love into her surviving son, becoming one of Elvis’s staunchest supporters. In Elvis, she’s depicted as a proud, spiritual woman who, doesn’t comprehend the sensuality inherent in his stage performances but understands his singing talent. Nevertheless, one of the worst things to happen to Gladys was losing Elvis to his fame.
The Elvis biography Last Train to Memphis examines a homelife that was very close, with Elvis sharing his mother’s bed until he was 13. In Elvis and the Memphis Mafia, it’s revealed that Elvis called his “satin-skinned mother ‘Satnin'” and the pair spoke in baby talk. While the bond isn’t quite so saccharine in the movie, it’s important to show how strong it was, because just as Gladys couldn’t stand Elvis being taken from her, he felt just as isolated and alone after she died.
Elvis Met Priscilla While He Was Stationed In Germany
While Elvis’s military stint did not amount to much more than a publicity opportunity for the Colonel and a means to course-correct Elvis’s “delinquent” reputation, the movie does make it a point to highlight that while stationed in Germany, Elvis met 14- year-old Priscilla, the daughter of an Air Force officer.
This meeting really happened, and Priscilla’s parents were careful to monitor the time she spent with The King. It’s fun to witness the precocious spirit of a young teenager who impressed Elvis with her mature worldview, making it believable that despite their age gap, he could see her as “unlike anyone” he’d ever met.
Elvis Wanted To Be A Serious Actor
Besides singing, Elvis wanted to act. He hoped to become a serious actor but was constantly thwarted by Colonel Parker who thought he needed to be in more formulaic movies. As a result, Elvis only made a handful of movies, like King Creole, Charro !, and Flaming Starthat could be classified as real dramas.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Elvis wanted to become like James Dean and Marlon Brando who, honing their craft on quality movies rather than derivative paint-by-numbers pictures, were able to garner great praise for their performances. Elvis had the same capacity for sincere emotional portrayals, but Colonel Parker worried they would tarnish his positive image.
The Dysfunctional Relationship With Colonel Tom Parker
With a history in carnival attractions and country music promotion, it is not surprising that Tom Parker wanted to represent Elvis Presley, a shy young singer with incredible talent. He presents himself as a friendly protector and advisor, lulling his client into a false sense of security, but with no real empathy towards him or the consequences of his lifestyle.
The Last Train to Memphis also goes into detail about his tumultuous relationship with Colonel Parker, who seemed prepared to sacrifice his client’s health in order to make him a star at all costs. After the loss of his mother, it seemed like Elvis needed an authority figure in his life to help him make decisions, thus enabling the Colonel to take more and more control.
Elvis Did Make Changes To The ’68 Comeback Special After MLK’s Death
The Colonel might have wanted Elvis to do a maudlin holiday spectacular to end his ’68 Comeback Special, but The King had been greatly affected by the recent passing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and worked with Steve Binder and Tom Diskin to change the focus of the major television event.
While it did not happen in exactly the same sequence, he did fight to end the special with “If I Can Dream,” a soaring ballad about people of all ethnicities coming together in harmony. It makes sense that creative license had to be taken in order to condense the timeline of the special and make it more dramatic, but the sentiment remains just as important in establishing Elvis’s principles.
Elvis Did Take A Large Amount Of Drugs To Navigate Fame
The latter half of the movie introduces Elvis’s personal doctor utilized by The King to stabilize various health conditions. Even when Elvis is suffering from extreme fatigue and collapsing before performances, Dr. Nick fills him with a deadly cocktail of barbituates, opiates, and amphetamines. At one point, Dr. Nick prescribes him 10,000 pills in an eight-month period.
The HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher leaves out some facts, but Priscilla herself opens up about the depths of Elvis’s drug use and indicates that it was linked to depression around fame. When taken with personal notes in which The King wrote, “I’m sick and tired of my life,” it becomes clear that he felt hopeless without the numbing effects of the drugs, and the effects of the drugs made him feel helpless in a neverending cycle.
Elvis Did Worry About Becoming Obsolete
It might be strange to conceive that at the same time he was filling arenas, Elvis was contemplating the mediocrity of his career, and lamenting the milestone of turning 40. The Beatles were outselling him, and musical tastes were changing, prompting him to confide in. Priscilla that he was worried his fans would forget about him.
In her intimate book Elvis & Me, Priscilla explains that Elvis did “worry about turning 40,” and that he was becoming worried that he’d lost the passion he once had for the music he loved because being “Elvis Presley” the icon was too much of a responsibility. The scene shows how sensitive and human even someone as famous as Elvis could be.
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