A Legendary Performer
Nick Tosches, the distinguished writer and biographer of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, once remarked, "I think Elvis Presley will never be solved." For those who've stared at the sideburned sphinx for nearly half a century, folding, unfolding and refolding him like the steel in a magical sword, Elvis becomes a less explainable and ever-sharper riddle.
D.J. Fontana, Presley's longtime drummer, puts it almost as succinctly: "I don't know if they'll ever figure it out. I wondered about it for years and years; a good-lookin' kid, lotsa talent -- more than most people -- his looks got him cranked up pretty good, and he could sing."
The problem with Elvis is that, like the pick that falls inside the guitar, it sometimes happens that no matter how you shake it, twirl it, tilt it this way and that, you may receive all manner of dust balls and other interesting debris, but sometimes the damn thing will simply not drop out.
Here are the simple facts: Presley was born poor, the only survivor of a pair of twins, child of an adoring and doting mother and a passive-aggressive hard-nosed dad who was in and out of the picture and jail. Elvis was the little boy who goofed around to the music on the radio, his mama clapping while he grinned and danced and played the fool.
But times was hard, as they say, back in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was just smart enough to be a natural cultural sponge and just isolated enough to lock everything he loved inside himself for later, when he was by himself, whether it was blues, R&B, pop, gospel, bop, swing and jumped-up country music, the pimpin' threads and greaser fashion of the Memphis layabouts, or Fawcett comics' Captain Marvel Jr. with his spangly dash and blue-black hair, lovingly detailed in the illustrations of artist Mac Raboy. Elvis watched, and he learned.
Meantime, returning veterans shoveled and heaped more mutant culture into the backwaters in those postwar years than at any time since the pre-Civil War decades. Little Elvis must have been vibrating like a tuning fork.
We know that producer Sam Phillips over at Sun Records was both canny and weird and anything but intimidated by racial barriers, and that something in him responded to the geeky kid with the encyclopedic musical sensibility. Phillips waited, listening, through all the clean and squeaky stuff the kid had brought with him -- the sincere ballads, the swinging pop that would later become Pat Boone's territory -- until something sneaked out of Elvis that had the authentic funk he had been trained to sniff. Elvis was funnin', but once Sam heard that noise, he did what any bloodhound gets paid to do -- he howled and barked and chased his quarry until Elvis was nothing but pure instinct and all that slopbucket sincerity was forgotten. Presley spent the rest of his career half-pretending, half-believing that he was just kidding the whole time.
Okay -- it's a long story, often retold, and we're no closer to the answer, so we'll turn over all the cards at this point. Elvis creates a name for himself, a reputation and a fan following touring the South and cutting records with a band that somehow knows exactly what works. Scotty Moore throws some juice into his Chet Atkins-style guitar and Bill Black does a hillbilly buffoon act with his bass. Elvis dyes his hair black, signs contracts with Col. Parker and RCA, and takes his road show on TV -- Tommy Dorsey, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan.
From there, he makes movies and dreams of filling the void that James Dean left behind him, hangs out in Hollywood a bit, cuts a lot of pop music, and in a couple of years manages to change the world forever. Like Orson Welles, Elvis flashes so brightly at such a young age, and with such unobstructed grace, that no matter how good he is later, everything is epilogue. Somehow, Elvis knows this, and when his mother dies, while he's in the Army, something climbs inside of Presley that stays with him until he dies.
At this point, it's too late for Elvis to be mentored. So he surrounds himself with a succession of bad influences. The Memphis Mafia, in a way, were also bloodhounds. As D.J. Fontana recalls, "They'd ask, 'What are you doing here? What time are you leaving?' They was afraid that Elvis would give you something and they wouldn't get some. They were takers -- they'd take everything they could and if anybody came around, anybody Elvis respected, they'd try their best to get rid of him."
Elvis is isolated -- we know this is a major piece of the puzzle -- and like Welles in The Lady From Shanghai, he is so surrounded by distorted mirror images that neither he nor his fans and audiences could see the real thing for the funhouse reflection. Like Dorian Gray, in the end, Elvis manifested the totality of his shortcomings -- as Dylan put it in "Desolation Row," his sin is his lifelessness. By 1977, Elvis was not busy bein' born, but he was very busy dyin'.
For his fans, the years 1968-70 mark the final turning point for the King; 1970 becomes the year Elvis takes Vegas. Fortunately, we have this period extremely well-documented in the Comeback Special and in Elvis: That's the Way It Is, which in its just-rereleased form might as well be a completely new movie.
Film restoration expert Rick Schmidlin doesn't quite see his own career this way, but he has devoted a considerable amount of time reconstructing the work of men who have self-destructed, as artists and as humans. He put up his cinematic scaffolding around Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (now available on DVD), Erich Von Stroheim's Greed and The Doors: Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
Now he's responsible for taking what was a fairly mundane Elvis documentary, directed by Denis Sanders, and rebuilding it, almost from scratch.
"We re-created it from head to toe. Back in the days when it was shot, the people who worked on it at MGM were people who did not know how to shoot that well, music, or how to edit music," says Schmidlin. "It wasn't that they weren't capable, it's just except for maybe Woodstock and Gimme Shelter and Monterey Pop, there weren't any music feature films. They were studio people, and the editors didn't know about cutting music. Now, after 30 years of video and features, we know better how to cut from vocals to guitar to drums to give it a better flow, a better sense of what's going on onstage."
The result is a far better film -- a movie that Presley fans on both sides of the Elvis stamp controversy are likely to enjoy for many of the same reasons.
What the film -- and the added footage in particular -- shows is an Elvis still fresh from his '68 comeback special. By this time, Presley has recognized where his talents chiefly lie: in performing and singing. He's abandoned acting, finally, and seems to have devoted himself to becoming a touring act. He's also found a considerable amount of fresh material in the last few years -- has in fact made some of his very best recordings, infinitely superior to the scrapple he turned out during what will become known as the "movie" decade.
Whatever fear possessed him when the musical landscape began to shift beneath his feet in the mid-'60s -- chiefly the result of the impact of the Beatles and the British Invasion -- seems to have made him a stronger act, and Elvis is the king of a new hybridized combination of Nashville country and Memphis R&B. He plays his early tunes and a lot of the newer stuff, a mix of Sun, RCA and Stax, impassioned, soulful and sweet.
Adds Schmidlin, "We found a man who was preparing for a new direction in his life, and when we see the film, we see someone who has a very, very positive way about the way he is going, and cannot foresee what is going to happen around the next corner. He's young -- 35 -- ready, and has a lot of hope. It's a lost moment in time before it's completely vanished from history in that he becomes a product of another environment."
In essence, he is revitalized, in control, but still nervous about Vegas, where he was shown the door as a youth, and where he is expected to stand alongside the Rat Pack, Louis Prima and so many more. This isn't the Louisiana Hayride, after all, or The Ed Sullivan Show. He's not a kid and he isn't playing for kids. When he enters the building, the International, he's professional show biz.
1970 was certainly a pivotal year for Elvis, and it isn't hard to project some sense of the inevitable in the documentary. The black leather Elvis wore in The Comeback Special was too hot, Elvis said, and so he shows a variety of strange, white, high-collared, open-to-the-waist outfits that seem rather tame today, but in those pre-glam/glitter times must have been something of a shock.
Early in That's the Way It Is, we see Elvis run his rehearsals, nervously, forcefully, making sure that his perfect pickup band is ready for anything he might throw at them, creating hand and musical cues. Presley allows them a lot of latitude, but one senses that he won't tolerate mistakes. Still, he's shaggy and having fun, mixing "Little Sister" with "Get Back."
Later in the film, we see the first stages of what would, a few short years later, become the Elvis/Liberace aesthetic -- which includes a red puffy shirt that would've sent Seinfeld screaming. The famed sideburns have returned and evidently learned to feed themselves. The additional footage in That's the Way It Is reveals all the clichés as well: the karate moves; the women fighting for the front of the stage so that Elvis might kiss them; the sweaty towels thrown into the audience.
Further back, in the booths and private tables, are stars ranging from Cary Grant to Sammy Davis Jr. The audiences from then on would become another kind of Memphis Mafia, another distorted reflection, as Elvis took the final turn in the river, becoming a showboat version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "I get so lonely, I could die."
Few -- save Albert Goldman -- have had much unkind to say about Elvis. Whatever shadows reached out for him were private ones. He wanted to be liked and he was. Everyone from film critic Andrew Sarris to Dennis Hopper has suggested that Presley might have eventually become a great actor, but as any actor can tell you, to be any good at it you have to be willing to be unlikable. The closest Presley came was as Vince Everett in Jailhouse Rock -- and there are many who believe that Presley and the arrogant Everett were not so far apart at the time, but the truth as we know it is that Elvis never let himself get mean.
There's an episode of The New Twilight Zone from 1986, "The Once and Future King," about a Las Vegas-based Elvis impersonator who goes back in time and becomes Elvis. In the program, the impersonator claims, "Vegas is what killed Elvis." But the truth is, Vegas could have saved Elvis. All he needed was his own hillbilly Rat Pack. Johnny Cash could have taught him how to manage his habits, Jerry Lee could have taught him a few things about megalomania, the Burgess brothers might have hung around to kick his ass when he needed it -- maybe Ricky Nelson could have helped Elvis negotiate his way around Hollywood, get him a part in a Howard Hawks picture. The speculations are endless.
What Schmidlin's movie does is help us see Elvis at the crossroads, fit and at the same time fixin' to die. And for those who love Elvis, his music, his performances, his looks, this is about as good as it gets.
Elvis would have been 66 this month. Had he lived, maybe Quentin Tarantino or Paul Michael Anderson would be talking him into a great part, something for Presley to sink his teeth into. Maybe Steven Soderbergh would have thrown him into his upcoming remake of Ocean's 11. Maybe he would've been doing the occasional show, going into or coming out of retirement with pay-per-view specials like Barbra Streisand. All of that is, of course, conjecture. What we have for sure is an insightfully reconstructed documentary and the upcoming Valley performance of "Elvis: The Concert," featuring many of the musicians in the documentary, playing behind filmed footage of the King.
Former President Jimmy Carter came pretty close to profundity when he said, "Elvis Presley was a symbol of the country's vitality, rebelliousness and good humor." It's as good an assessment as any offered, but beyond that, the mystery of Elvis remains intact and unfathomable.
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