With Austin Butler donning the bejewelled white jumpsuit in Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic, we reflect on the road to Elvis.
When Elvis Presley began his movie career back in 1956 with Love Me Tender, there was an outrage. Screaming fans protested the death of his character, Clint Reno, at the end of the film. There was just no way that his fans could entertain the notion of a fictional version of the swivel-hipped, curl-lipped King of Rock and Roll dying.
And so, an alternate ending was quickly shot. This proved two things. One is that there was an enormous appetite to see Elvis on screen. Two, that the version of Elvis on-screen couldn’t stray too far from the fantasies of millions of fans.
Advanced sales of the titular song surpassed one million copies – the first time a single had ever done so – despite the fact that Elvis didn’t even receive top billing on the movie posters. In its first week of release, the film itself grossed $540,000 at the box office, narrowly beaten to the top spot by James Dean’s Giant.
Ironically, Elvis was a great admirer of Dean and his brief career. It was those types of serious, meaty roles that Presley so desperately coveted. Instead, he was doomed to (largely) cinematic fluff that sought to curate a public persona of an all-around good guy and ladies’ man.
Throughout his cinematic career, Elvis starred in thirty-one feature films (of varying quality) and two concert documentaries. Did any of them get to the heart of who he really was or wanted to be? And how much impact have these films had on other actors who have played the King on screen?
Elvis Presley: The Man, The Myth, The Movie Legend
Whilst internet ratings should by no means influence what you choose to watch, having a look at Presley’s cinematic catalogue is a pretty damning indictment of quality. His films rarely go beyond a 6 out of 10 – and that includes the really big hits such as Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas. Not even a bevvy of Hollywood beauties and hit after chart-topping hit can counter for poor quality scripts and cardboard sets.
Despite this, Elvis’ presence on screen – 27 of his films came out in the 1960s – made a lot of people a lot of money. But the King was deeply unhappy. “It was just that Hollywood’s image of me was wrong. And I knew it and I couldn’t say anything about it,” he is said to have admitted in private. But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks in Luhrman’s movie) cut a series of shrewd deals that say Elvis churn out film after film, wherein he essentially played the same character and sang a few of his hits.
Presley is said to have taken acting very seriously. He wanted to replicate the comic success of the Rat Pack; the dramatic calibre of the pin-ups of the day like Brando and Dean. But it was not to be.
Following Love Me Tender, came Loving You and Jailhouse Rock in 1957. The latter, of course, gave Elvis one of his most iconic hits and both performed well at the box office. Then came King Creole, which saw Elvis cast opposite Walter Matthau and Vic Morrow. Of all his roles, Presley would refer to this as his favourite.
Caught in a trap…
The likes of GI Blues crudely capitalised on the singer’s well-publicized military service. Viva Las Vegas and Girls! Girls! Girls! would lean modestly into his notorious libido. And if it felt like Presley was phoning it in, it’s because some say he was. Director Don Siegel is quoted as saying, “He did his usual schtick, which was to sing twelve songs in a terrible film.”
And perhaps, whilst scooping $1 million per film and securing the music publishing rights, the quality wouldn’t matter to many stars. But it really did to Presley. He lobbied for more serious roles – Barbra Streisand desperately wanted him for her A Star is Born remake – but Colonel Parker refused. He knew how powerful the Elvis brand was and didn’t want to take any risks with it. Not least because Elvis playing a crook, a washed-up star or any other sort of “off-brand” character was likely to turn off fans and hit Parker in the pocket.
Elvis’ final film – Change of Habit – saw him cast opposite rising star, Mary Tyler Moore. Tired of the churn and burn that effectively prevented him from making good rock and roll, Presley turned his back on Hollywood. But Hollywood was not finished with Elvis Presley.
From Nursing Homes to Nixon
Many have tried to emulate the brooding good looks of the King on screen. It’s hard to find an actor who could possibly capture so much charisma and so much personal trauma. Presley was an extremely complicated character who could turn on the charm and hypersexuality when needed. But it was not without cost.
Because Elvis “the brand” almost feels like a product, he has often become the butt of the joke or the main component of a truly bizarre plot. We’ve had Elvis undead, but in space in Elvis Rising, Memphis Returns (2009); Elvis in a nursing home in Bubba Ho-Tep (2002); and Elvis as a spirit in heaven in Angels with Angels (2005). Most of them see the King in some sort of flammable-looking jumpsuit with big hair and even bigger brown sunglasses. Perhaps it’s difficult to see such a musical icon as someone vulnerable; someone who had feelings and flaws. The hyperbolic, almost ubiquitous, Elvis costume seems a much more palatable version of the star.
Most famously, Kurt Russell played the titular role in the 1979 TV movie, Elvis. Russell was the first actor to ever play Presley on screen and the film aired just two years after he died, fully capitalising on the waves of grief that still haunted fans. In the late 1980s, David Keith and Harvey Keitel portrayed Elvis in Heartbreak Hotel and Finding Graceland, respectively. Neither particularly look like Presley, but the same could be said of Russell, too.
In that sense, most biopics or mini series have tried to capture the “essence” of Elvis, as opposed to trying to find an exact lookalike. That could be why everyone from Jack White (in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) to Michael Shannon (in Elvis and Nixon) has been cast as the King. That being said, Val Kilmer made a truly gorgeous ghost of Elvis in True Romance whilst Jonathon Rhys Meyers gave Presley a gritty, vulnerable edge in the TV mini-series he starred in. And, it has to be said, Austin Butler seems an impressive physical match for the young Elvis.
What Rhys Meyers sought to capture in his portrayal was the pressures and isolation of fame. Yes, there were the songs and the charm, but there was a clear desire to underline the fact that there was a person underneath all the costumes. Baz Luhrman’s biopic, from the trailers, looks to straddle the line between both. Luhrman is famous for his outlandish sets, use of colour and re-workings of classic songs. This fits in perfectly with the stage persona of Elvis; the Elvis we all feel we know. But where this biopic could prove most interesting is in any depiction of Elvis the man; the individual with dreams and failures.
And with the release of Luhrman’s biopic, who knows what new Elvis content this will span. Despite the fact that it is forty-five years since Presley died, his star endures. His image remains instantly identifiable; his voice and musical catalogue remain beloved. Casting Austin Butler, a former Disney channel star with millions of squealing teenage fans, is a business move so shrewd the Colonel himself would be proud. Because now Elvis, his music and his legacy can be reborn in a new generation.
Elvis is in cinemas from June 24, 2022.