The True History Behind Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’

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“He looked like a prince from another planet, narrow‐eyed, with high Indian cheekbones and a smooth brown skin untouched by his 37 years,” reported the New York Times Chris Chase in June 1972.

The “prince” in query was Elvis Presley, performing reside on June 9, the opening of his three-day, four-show engagement at Madison Square Garden in New York City. “[W]hen he started to work with the mike, his right hand flailing air, his left leg moving as though it had a life of its own, time stopped, and everyone in the place was 17 again,” Chase wrote.

Just a number of hours earlier, the Times added, Elvis had held a press convention “in a hotel ballroom jammed with freaks, little skinny girls, fat men in hippie clothes, lots of leather jackets and inane questions.” Clad in a blue satin jumpsuit, the singer, together with his mane of black hair and showbiz smile, obtained his viewers with endurance and style. Off to the facet as at all times, his supervisor, “the big‐bellied, straw‐hatted, cigar‐carrying” Colonel Tom Parker, watched over him.

Elvis in a movie still, circa 1957

Elvis in a film nonetheless, circa 1957

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

During the convention, a reporter barked a query at Elvis, prompting a revealing exchange.

“Are you satisfied with the image you’ve established?” he requested.

Elvis replied, “Uh … well, the image is one thing, and the human being is another, you know, so—”

The reporter reduce him off. “How close does the image come to the man?”

“It’s … very hard to live up to an image. I’ll put it that way.”

“The world was not prepared for Elvis Presley,” proclaimed music author Peter Guralnick in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. “He hit like a Pan American flash, and the reverberations still linger from the shock of his arrival.” Guralnick’s phrases, first revealed in 1976, nonetheless maintain true in the present day. Forty-five years after the musician’s death in 1977 at age 42, observers proceed to reckon with the person and the parable that was—and is—Elvis Presley.

Baz Luhrmann’s new movie Elvis, starring Austin Butler because the eponymous singer, testifies to the general public’s enduring fascination with its title character. The film dramatizes the artist’s rise and fall from a lesser-known perspective—that of his enigmatic supervisor, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Crafted by Luhrmann with the characteristic extravagance of his earlier movies, together with Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Elvis explores the connection between Elvis the person and Elvis the parable from the viewpoint of the person who bought each. Hanks’ Parker concedes as a lot in a trailer for the movie: “Elvis the man was sacrificed, and Elvis the god was born.”

Here’s what you’ll want to know in regards to the true historical past behind Elvis—a narrative inseparable from fantasy—forward of its launch in theaters tomorrow, June 24.

Is Elvis primarily based on a real story?

Yes. The film condenses Elvis’ life right into a 159-minute biopic. Much is essentially unnoticed, however all the key moments seem: Elvis’ discovery at Sun Records in 1954, the titillating cultural explosions of his first reside reveals, the ’68 Comeback Special, his reinvention in Las Vegas within the Seventies and every part in between. Parker’s narration of the movie provides one other layer to the expertise, as the previous carny–turned–rock and roll supervisor is an unreliable narrator if ever there was one.

“The film is really a story about the ‘biz,’ and the ‘show,’” Luhrmann tells GQ. “… But it isn’t ‘Elvis did this, Elvis did that.’ It’s actually about America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He’s at the center of culture, for the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Given Luhrmann’s aptitude for larger-than-life spectacle, Elvis could effectively mirror the star’s spirit higher than any prior depiction. As Harper’s magazine requested in 1958, “When [Elvis’] present public finds itself, as it someday must, demesmerized by time, … what’s to become of this young man whose life and legend are by now indistinguishable?”

Who was Elvis Presley?

Before he was a rock and roll star, Elvis was a truck driver. And earlier than he was a truck driver, he grew up in abject poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi. Born on January 8, 1935, Elvis got here of age in a closely segregated area nonetheless reeling from the Great Depression. As the South modernized and have become a part of a prosperous, postwar America within the Nineteen Fifties, Elvis introduced its musical tradition onto the national stage.

These have been the situations that made Elvis, whose actions have been largely pushed by his concern of shedding every part and ending up again the place he’d started. “I can never forget the longing to be someone,” he told a reporter in 1965. “I know what poverty is. I lived it for a long time.”

Growing up, Elvis’ want for one thing extra in life led him to fall in love with all issues popular culture. “Elvis invented himself over and over again, through the popular culture that he consumed,” says Michael T. Bertrand, a cultural historian at Tennessee State University and the writer of Race, Rock, and Elvis. “I mean, music, movies, style—he was a sponge. … He was the ultimate consumer.” Only 19 when he began recording music with Sun Records in 1954, the culture-savvy teenager was, originally of his profession, very very like his future followers.

Austin Butler as Elvis playing the guitar

Austin Butler as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Elvis’ music drew on his favourite types—the sorts of music he listened to on the radio, together with nation, gospel, and rhythm and blues carried out by each white and Black artists. “He’s kind of a synthesizer,” says Jack Hamilton, a cultural historian on the University of Virginia. “Like a lot of young, very talented musicians, he’s just kind of going with his gut. … You can really hear all of his influences.”

Elvis was at his finest on stage. Whether it was his legendary 1954 look on Louisiana Hayride, his ’68 Comeback Special or his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii broadcast, the star at all times introduced the thunder. He had “a style and panache that come close to pure magic,” wrote Elvis biographer W.A. Harbinson in 1975. “Flamboyant and flashy, sexy and self-mocking, he works with the instincts of a genius to give poetry to the basic rock performance.” Whether he made followers swoon with “Love Me Tender,” rocked their worlds with “Jailhouse Rock” or set their hearts aflame with “Burning Love,” Elvis proved repeatedly that he was made for the stage.

Though Elvis didn’t write his personal materials, he heightened each music he sang with the rawness of his smoldering baritone. “He had an incredible sense of time, an incredible sense of intonation and phrasing. … It’s sort of like musical intuition,” says Hamilton. Elvis’ early data, produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Records, stand as testaments to his expertise: “That’s All Right,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Mystery Train.”

Though none of Elvis’ Sun singles grew to become nationwide hits, alongside his reside performances, they received him a regional following. Elvis’ distinctive sound, borne from the expertise of his voice and the instrumental talent of his backing band, the Blue Moon Boys, resonated throughout the United States as he moved from Sun to a brand new label, RCA Victor, and have become a nationwide star. From 1956 to 1958, the teenager idol dominated the charts with hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” whilst he was castigated by his detractors as “Elvis the Pelvis” for his suggestive dance strikes and referred to as a racial slur for his affinity with Black tradition. Then, in 1958, on the peak of his fame, Elvis was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Germany. He solely resumed his profession after the tip of his service in 1960.

Who was Colonel Tom Parker?

As journalist Alanna Nash writes in The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, “No artist had ever exploded on the scene with the volcanic impact of Elvis Presley in 1956, and no manager before Tom Parker had ever been so brilliantly, or blatantly, capitalistic.”

The following change between the colonel and a White House staffer, recounted within the rock magazine Creem in 1972, aptly summarizes Parker’s strategy to enterprise:

President Nixon requests Mr. Presley to carry out. The Colonel did slightly fast figuring after which instructed the person that Elvis would think about it an honor. For the President, Elvis’s payment … could be $25,000. The good German gasped.

“Col. Parker, nobody gets paid for playing for the President.”

“Well, I don’t know much about that, son,” the Colonel responded abruptly, “but there’s one thing I do know. Nobody asks Elvis Presley to play for nothing.”

Like Elvis, Parker got here from humble beginnings. Born within the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk on June 26, 1909, he, too, reinvented himself. Illegally immigrating to the U.S. on the age of 17 and adopting the title Thomas Andrew Parker (he thereafter claimed to be from West Virginia), he made his dwelling as a carnival employee, apart from a virtually four-year stint within the Army. Honorably discharged for psychopathy in 1933, it wasn’t by the army, however relatively a carny connection, that Parker obtained the honorary title of “colonel” from the Louisiana state authorities.

President Richard Nixon shakes hands with Elvis in the Oval Office in December 1970

President Richard Nixon shakes arms with Elvis within the Oval Office in December 1970.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The colonel later leveraged a place working at an animal shelter to interrupt into the music trade, managing crooner Gene Austin and nation stars Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and Tommy Sands earlier than turning his consideration to Elvis because the artist started making waves within the nation music scene. In 1955, Parker persuaded the much-larger file label RCA Victor to buy out Elvis’ contract with Sun Records for the staggering sum of $35,000; he grew to become Elvis’ supervisor and unique consultant for the remainder of the star’s profession.

Parker’s personal credo was “don’t try to explain it; just sell it.” He could not have understood—and even favored—rock and roll, however he knew how one can promote a product and negotiate with pressure. In addition to securing Elvis’ RCA deal, Parker negotiated his characteristic movies, his Vegas residency and his Aloha From Hawaii particular. The colonel even profited from Elvis’ detractors, selling ”I Hate Elvis” pins alongside “I Love Elvis” ones. Whatever served Elvis’ pursuits served Parker’s, too: He contractually took a 25 percent cut on all of his consumer’s earnings (50 % for licensing and merchandise).

Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis on a movie set in 1969

Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis on a film set in 1969

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Music writers proceed to debate how obligatory the colonel was to Elvis’ profession, notably as he polished the rocker’s tough edges to make him extra marketable. (The star’s first studio album was titled Elvis Presley. His sixth: Something for Everybody.) Rock critic Dave Marsh denounced Parker as “the most overrated person in the history of show-business,” arguing that he “[sold] genius short for 23 years.” Guralnick, in the meantime, concluded that Elvis and the colonel “started out with great love, loyalty, respect,” however “towards the end of Presley’s life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer.”

“Words can never tell you how my folks and I appreciate what you did for me,” wrote Elvis in a 1955 telegram thanking the colonel for negotiating the RCA deal. “I will stick with you through thick and thin. … I love you like a father.” Toward the tip of his life, nonetheless, Elvis’ relationship with the colonel utterly modified. He felt trapped by the contracts the colonel signed for him within the Sixties and ’70s—a resentment worsened by his drug abuse and the colonel’s playing dependancy. On stage in Vegas in August 1974, the musician ranted at his viewers: “Is the Colonel around anywhere? No, he’s out playing roulette, … out there talkin’ mash and drinkin’ trash, whatever.”

“He needed a father figure,” says Nash. “I think initially, Elvis loved this idea. … [The colonel] seemed not only interested in turning his million dollars’ worth of talent into a million dollars, but also in wanting the very best for him.” In the tip, it’s seemingly that Elvis felt obligated to stay with Parker. After all, he had household and mates (nicknamed the “Memphis Mafia” by the media for his or her black fits and limousines) to help. Above all, he was afraid of being poor once more. And the colonel was nice at making a living.

But did Parker actually care about Elvis?

“[He] was not a warm and fuzzy guy,” says Nash. “I think providing, being able to say, ‘I got the most money,’ was his way of showing love.”

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Did Elvis steal Black music?

Music critics, journalists, teachers and followers have long debated the thought of Elvis as a white thief of Black artwork. The fact of the matter is sophisticated.

Rock and roll began with Black rhythm and blues (additionally referred to as R&B). “Rock and roll is not, or was not, so much a distinct genre of music as it was a label that was applied to an existing musical form to market it to white teenagers,” says Steven Lewis, a curator of music and the performing arts on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Rock and roll was rhythm and blues repackaged for white audiences.”

Rock and roll was indisputably pioneered by Black artists corresponding to Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. It’s “Black music” within the sense that it was invented by Black artists, however as Lewis argues, that doesn’t imply solely Black individuals can play music with origins in Black tradition. “To me, it’s the difference between talking about Black music as a musical language and talking about musical Blackness as something that is inherent in the body of a Black person,” the curator provides. (In different phrases, it’s essential to not confuse music originated by Black artists with the cultural expertise of being Black.)

Alton Mason as Little Richard in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis

Alton Mason as Little Richard in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Elvis didn’t “steal” Black music just by performing it. He persistently credited the artistry of his Black predecessors and friends, so it’s disingenuous to label him a thief. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” he instructed Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

From cowl songs originated by Black artists like Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog”) and Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”) to his hip shakes (a 1969 New York Times headline described him as “A White Boy With Black Hips”), Elvis borrowed closely from Black tradition.

While this “borrowing”—and whether or not it constitutes cultural appropriation—is closely contested, it’s maybe most helpful to consider it when it comes to cultural change: impartial, with the potential to be optimistic or adverse. American standard music had thrived on cultural change (and appropriation) since its inception, and Elvis was removed from the primary—or the final—white artist to attract from Black music. This lineage contains numerous different rockers, together with the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, to not point out jazz greats like Benny Goodman and Sophie Tucker and rappers like Eminem and Post Malone.

What is commonly neglected when observers pin the blame for pop cultural racism on a single artist is the truth that the broader music industry was—and still is—racist. White artists, no matter their intentions, loved higher entry to fame and revenue than Black artists by advantage of the colour of their pores and skin. “The discussion of cultural appropriation in music would be much more nuanced if we took a broader look at the conditions in which musicians worked,” says Lewis. “Elvis was always going to get radio play and record sales that Black artists could not have gotten at the time. So, in some ways, the problem goes beyond Elvis.”

Elvis was hailed by his followers because the white “king” of a Black musical type whose originators obtained far much less recognition than he did. “I believe that if Elvis had been Black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was,” Little Richard instructed Rolling Stone in 1990. “A lot of things they would do for Elvis and Pat Boone, they wouldn’t do for me.” White rapper Eminem, acutely aware of how his race benefitted his profession, in contrast himself to Elvis in his 2002 single “Without Me”: “No, I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do Black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy.”

No, Elvis didn’t steal Black music, however he actually appropriated and profited from it inside an unjust, discriminatory system.

Why ought to we nonetheless care about Elvis?

Defying his detractors, who anticipated his fame to putter out throughout his army service, Elvis resumed his profession proper the place it left off upon returning to the U.S. in 1960. Backed by the colonel, Elvis starred in nearly 30 movies over the following eight years, showing in consolation movies like Blue Hawaii (1961) and Viva Las Vegas (1964), the place he sang, danced and at all times obtained the lady. Though the films made Elvis wealthy, he grew to become dissatisfied with how they restricted his creativity to milquetoast plots and soundtrack albums.

The ’68 Comeback Special modified every part. A televised live performance that revisited the whole lot of Elvis’ profession, it revived him as an artist. Sexy and electrical in a full-leather ensemble, he growled and ground his means again as much as rock stardom. Leveraging the particular’s momentum, the colonel secured Elvis a profitable residency on the International Hotel in Las Vegas, the place he carried out 636 consecutive sold-out shows between July 1969 and December 1976.

The live shows started off well. The creative freedom Elvis loved in Vegas rejuvenated him as a performer. But issues began to crumble because the pressures of fame caught as much as him. He divorced his wife, Priscilla, in 1973. His relationship with the colonel deteriorated as he as soon as once more felt trapped by his contractual obligations. He abused drugs and ate his way to weight problems to deal with singing and dancing by his two-shows-a-night, seven-days-a-week routine.

Priscilla and Elvis Presley following their wedding on May 1, 1967

Priscilla and Elvis Presley following their wedding ceremony on May 1, 1967

Bettman by way of Getty Images

“We’re caught in a trap,” he lamented in “Suspicious Minds,” his final number-one single. Though his triumphant 1973 Aloha From Hawaii broadcast stored his fantasy alive, it wasn’t sufficient for the person himself. Elvis died of a heart attack on August 16, 1977, at his Graceland property in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 42 years outdated.

Elvis, in his artistry, grandeur and contradictions, was a living embodiment of the American dream. In remembering his life and occasions and making an attempt to parse the person from the parable, audiences come nearer to understanding the multivalent meanings of American tradition.

“I always say to people who weren’t alive in 1956, when Elvis hit the national scene, you cannot imagine the before and after [of] American culture,” says Nash. “It was a seismic change. It was as if a bomb had blown up that engulfed the entire world.”

Elvis performing in front of a crowd around 1957

Elvis performing in entrance of a crowd round 1957

Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Hamilton provides, “It’s impossible to imagine a world of popular music in which Elvis doesn’t exist. [He] was as much—if not more—a cultural phenomenon than a musical one.”

Rock critic Greil Marcus put it finest in his 1975 basic Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music:

At his finest Elvis not solely embodies however personalizes a lot of what’s good about [America]: a enjoyment of intercourse that’s typically easy, typically complicated, however at all times open; a love of roots and a respect for the previous; a rejection of the previous and a requirement for novelty; the form of racial concord that for Elvis, a white man, means a strong affinity with probably the most delicate nuances of black tradition mixed with an equally profound understanding of his personal whiteness; a burning want to get wealthy, and to have enjoyable; a pure affection for large vehicles, flashy garments, for the symbols of standing that give pleasure each as symbols, and on their very own phrases. Elvis has lengthy since turn out to be a kind of symbols himself.

We ought to care about Elvis—the person and the parable—as a result of he was Elvis Presley, a real American unique.

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Grant Wong

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