Reprinted with permission from Nippertown
I was 12 when my friend Richard Ross grabbed me by the collar and pulled me into his bedroom to hear “Heartbreak Hotel.” Until that moment, my knowledge of music consisted of hearing Patti Page sing “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window” and “Tennessee Waltz” which my young mind interpreted as “Tennessee Walls.”
But here was a song by a guy contemplating suicide down at the end of lonely street. And the guitar accompaniment threatened to tear open the speakers on Richard Ross’s portable record player. Elvis’ music spoke to ME, not to my post-World War II weary parents. This was forbidden fruit that hooked me like a first dose of heroin. Sixty-two years later, I’m still addicted.
Elvis, the movie, took in an estimated 31.5 million dollars on its first weekend compared to the Elton John biopic Rocketman ($25.7 million in a pre-pandemic 2019) and Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody ($52.1 million in 2018). In a post-pandemic world he still has the mojo.
Elvis has been my bridge over troubled waters. He’s the universal soldier of pop music. Dead for 45 years, he still has his own channel on Sirius XM Radio. He is Everyman, The King, and the only artist universally loved by everyone in my extended family. Making a film about such an iconic character is an impossible task. But executive music producer/composer Elliott Wheeler and director Baz Luhrmann have done it.
It’s a true story with a fairy tale beginning and a horror movie conclusion. It had me cheering out loud at the music which features Austin Butler lip synching original Elvis recordings until the last scene that features a film of a bloated, exhausted, and sweating Presley sitting through the last song of his last appearance on his fifth year of his Las Vegas residency. I was openly weeping in my seat.
In 22 years of recording and performing he took us from tent revival gospel to the movies like “Girls, Girls, Girl,” from blues covers like “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog” to his last studio recording Moody Blue with its hit “In the Ghetto” recorded four weeks before his death.
Blues veteran Charlie Musselwhite grew up poor in Mississippi along with Elvis. He recently described his relationship with the man who would become The King of Rock and Roll.
“I thought he was the real deal. He kind of validated all us poor boys from Mississippi because we all combed our hair like that. We all shopped for clothes on Beale St. There were layers of society with the cotton people at the very top, and poor whites and blacks were at the bottom, and if you were from Mississippi, you were kind of looked down on. So, when he became famous, it was like he was one of us. He dressed like us. He talked like us. He combed his hair like us. Suddenly we weren’t so bad anymore.”
Musselwhite never got to tell Elvis that. “I did get to know – I shouldn’t say I knew him. I was acquainted with him. I had his phone number. I’d call up and find out – he would have these parties around town, and I’d call up to find out where the party was. He’d rent a theater, or he’d rent entire fairgrounds, a skating rink or stuff like that, and he’d go from midnight until dawn, and, boy, was I into that, especially because there were so many girls at these parties. So, I never really had any conversation with him. I’d say hi or something, and that was about it. I didn’t push myself on him. I appreciated what he did. I love especially his early records for Sun. I thought that was just cool as hell.”
The film is especially good at telling the story of Elvis’ early years. Growing up white in Tupelo, Mississippi put Elvis on the wrong side of the tracks racially to experience the tent revivals that took black worshippers to heaven literally and figuratively. Edgar Winter describes the same experience he had with his brother Johnny in Texas. The fact that both of them were albino was as if you understood what it must be like to be black and be rejected by some people. I asked him if they went through some of the same acceptance issues as Elvis when they were growing up.
“Absolutely. I’ve often thought the same thing you’re expressing. I would sneak into those tent revivals. If you think rock and roll has energy, it pales in comparison to that Pentecostal gospel music. We’d sneak into one of those tent things. We’d be the only white people there, and no one ever bothered us. It was a beautiful thing. Beaumont was very segregated.”
The Elvis film does an amazing job of capturing that vibe on Elvis as a young teenager, and its depiction of Elvis’ black influences including B. B. King, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, Arthur Big Boy Crudup, and Rosetta Tharpe is particularly well done if frustrating in its brief flashes.
To the roots musicians who provided Elvis with his most powerful inspirations, Las Vegas was an anathema. Noted songwriter Jimmy Webb of “Wichita Lineman” fame once described for me his horror at being invited to perform his “MacArthur Park” hit in 1968 at Caesar’s Palace. They agreed to pay him $40,000 a week for eight weeks. “All I had to do was sit at a piano, and the piano would come out of the stage on a hydraulic lift with dancing fountains behind it. Eight times 40. That was a fortune! Elvis was playing the Hilton International, and they were paying him $250,000 a week, okay?”
Webb refused the gig and instead went out on the road with a four-piece band playing all the hip clubs from the Troubadour in L.A. to the Bitter End in the Big Apple.
Watching Tom Hanks as Col. Parker under tons of makeup forcing Elvis into five years of Vegas servitude that precipitated his early demise at 42 in 1977 is excruciating.
The Elvis film is particularly effective in covering what has become known as his comeback performance on the Singer Sewing Machine TV special in 1968. I watched it on a portable black and white TV in my apartment in Richmond, Virginia as I awaited my orders to Vietnam. Elvis had spent two years in the Army and had lost favor with his younger fans who were into the British Invasion bands and the psychedelic sounds of the San Francisco scene. I watched transfixed as Elvis strutted his stuff in a leather jacket, cocky and seemingly assured of himself. He won back his crowd and gave me, at the time a wannabe hippie stuck in an Army uniform, a role model. My music would see me through. Vietnam was not the end of the world. It actually became where I first wrote about pop music for The Army Reporter.
The moments I discovered John F. Kennedy’s death, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and 9/11 are imprinted on my brain with a branding iron. So is the moment I first heard Elvis, that night I watched him take back his crown on TV, and the morning I heard he’d passed. The new Elvis film had some heavy shoes to fill in my mind, and it succeeded on all fronts. A true fantasy that turns into a horror show is almost too much to absorb. To say that it’s riveting is an understatement.