I recently visited Memphis, Tennessee, home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion. As you might expect, thousands of people come to visit the site each year and Memphis has responded by plastering Elvis on everything you can think of. It’s always the same image of Elvis: poofy pompadour, jumpsuits, and sunglasses. That seems to be the only Elvis people are interested in. The inside of Graceland is gaudy and kind of depressing, much like his own life story. Elvis became famous as a young, energetic performer with a slew of hit songs, so it boggles my mind that people celebrate the worst aspects of him. There are a lot of cool things about Elvis, but none of them have anything to do with white, sequined jumpsuits or oversized sunglasses.
Released in 1958, King Creole is the best of Elvis’s movies. As is the case with most Elvis movies, Presley plays a thinly veiled version of himself. The script is actually based on the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher and the part was originally written for James Dean. After Dean died, Elvis got involved and the part was changed from a lower-class Jewish boy who becomes a successful boxer and is then killed by mobsters to a lower-class Elvis Presley who becomes a successful singer and is not killed by mobsters and continues being Elvis fucking Presley.
The movie begins with Elvis being held back from graduating for the second year in a row, this time because he punched another student in the face for making fun of him. Faced with having to repeat the 12th grade a third time, Elvis drops out of school, joins a gang briefly, and winds up singing at a nightclub, which pays off huge because he’s Elvis “70 Platinum Records” Presley.
A lot of the movie focuses on Presley’s strained relationship with his father as he tries to get Presley to return to school. Elvis refuses and keeps dealing with nightclub owners/mafia dons. If this were a normal movie from 1958, he would face the consequences of taking the easy way out and wind up dead, just as his character did in the source material.
Alas, this not a normal movie. It’s an Elvis movie. So instead of winding up broke or dead, he comes out on top. As is the case with most Elvis movies, the moral is not “Be Kind” or “Be Smart”, but “Be Elvis”.
Bye Bye Birdie
Birdie Conrad, the title character of Bye Bye Birdie (1963), is a caricature of Elvis at the height of his fame made while at the height of his fame. In 1963, no one knew the King would die a bloated shadow of his former self at age 42. All people knew then was that he was a great performer who had a thing for guitars, glitz, and girls. Jesse Pearson plays Birdie as a generic rock ‘n’ roll douchebag, but you can see the Elvis shine through when he starts singing.
If you are not already familiar with the plot of Bye Bye Birdie, it goes like this: Birdie gets drafted into the army, so his publicist sets up a televised concert where he’ll sing to and then kiss a randomly selected fan of his. High-schooler Kim McAfee (played by Ann-Margaret, who would go on to star opposite the real Elvis in Viva las Vegas just a year later) and her boyfriend, Hugo, is none too thrilled about it.
And really, that has to be rough. I can’t imagine anything more disappointing than having Elvis Presley hit on your girlfriend at the height of his fame.
Anyways, Hugo winds up knocking Birdie out on live TV, which wins back Kim and they live happily ever after.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s disappointing that this Elvis — glitzy, somewhat sexual, but not really — is what Elvis was eventually remembered as. Just look at this clip from Jailhouse Rock.
When Elvis began, he was dangerous. But you don’t become a household name seeming dangerous, so his image became much safer, louder, and brighter. The jumpsuit-wearing Elvis became the Elvis. To see how Elvis is remembered today, not as a person but as an icon, we’ll zoom forward almost thirty years.
Rock-A-Doodle (1991) is an animated children’s film about an Elvis-like rooster named Chanticleer. For the sake of this post, we’ll ignore Rock-A-Dooodle‘s myriad of problems (it was not well-recieved and flopped so badly, the studio was liquidated six months later) and just focus on how the movie portrays Elvis through Chanticleer.
For a children’s movie with an unbelievably convoluted plot involving someone called the “Grand Duke of Owls” and a living boy transformed into a cartoon cat, Rock-A-Doodle gives a more realistic version of Presley’s life than his own movies did, if only because there are no mobsters and he never goes to jail. Chanticleer starts out poor and has red hair, while the real Elvis grew up poor and had strawberry blonde hair before he started dying it black. When Chanticleer gets kicked off the farm, he goes to a Las Vegas type city where he makes it big under the stage name “The King”, dyes his hair black, and adorns the jumpsuit/cape combo Elvis made so famous. His manager lavishes him with praise and gifts in an effort to make him forget his past life. At this point, Chanticleer’s life stops mimicking Presley’s, as he triumphantly returns to the farm to reclaim his roots and throws away all the trappings of excess and fame.
Rock-A-Doodle sums up how people see Elvis today: a joke. As much as people enjoy Elvis’s music, they also enjoy seeing jackasses dress up in white jumpsuits and bad wigs and do impressions of the King. If you look around Memphis or Nashville, you’re bound to see countless images of Elvis, but it’s always the lame Elvis, the Bye Bye Birdie or Rock-A-Doodle Elvis, never the badass from Jailhouse Rock and King Creole.
In the Tarantino-penned crime film True Romance, the main character gushes about Elvis:
[Elvis] was everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly: mean, surly, nasty, rude. In that movie he couldn’t give a fuck about nothing except rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.
And really, that’s what first attracted people to Elvis. No sequin jumpsuits. No pompadour. All he had was a dirty suit, no tie, and a guitar that he held like a tommy-gun.