This past week on Twitter, the deejay Argo, host of SiriusXM Elvis Radio, offered a few supportive comments to filmmaker Baz Luhrmann when Mr. Luhrmann announced that the role of Priscilla Presley had been cast for his upcoming Elvis biopic. I echo Argo’s sentiment, and I truly hope that Luhrmann knocks it out of the park. After all, we don’t have a truly comprehensive Elvis biopic yet, and what we do have falls woefully short on several key elements. I wonder, though, if the odds are stacked against the fans in terms of ever getting a factual, thorough accounting of Elvis’s life, health and medical concerns, and his untimely demise.
In 1981, fans were treated to the documentary, “This Is Elvis,” which to this day stands as pretty much the go-to for Elvis biography on the screen. With its pros and cons, fans seem to still enjoy it and it represents Elvis throughout his life and career, and while the end of Elvis’s life is given barely a nod, the re-enactment scenes filmed inside Graceland, and in Elvis’s bedroom, seem to make up for it.
Over the ensuing years, we’ve seen a handful of Elvis films, all falling under the loose category of “biopic,” though in my view none of these has been even close to definitive (and probably didn’t try). Maybe not even adequate. But without going into those films, let’s skip ahead to “Elvis and Nixon,” from 2016. In this depiction of the December 21, 1970, visit to the White House, the writers took liberties with the facts, and while most people might not realize what was true and what was embellished, most Elvis fans certainly knew the difference. But why did they do this, if the comedic results weren’t very strong anyway? Why did Executive Producer Jerry Schilling, who knows the facts, not implore the writers to be more accurate? Where are all the pieces to the puzzle, the reasons Elvis’s left Memphis, where he traveled, what his purpose was…? Why was the character of Elvis presented as a buffoon, and why did they cast Michael Shannon as Elvis, an actor who may very well be a skilled thespian but who didn’t look the part, didn’t act the part, and didn’t capture anything authentic about Elvis? I mean, the wig…who looked at that and said, “Yeah, he looks great!”? Also worth noting is that some non-fans weren’t sure if Shannon’s portrayal of Elvis was parody or outright mockery.
And why was the Nixon meeting presented as a “fictionalized” account, while also being touted as “the untold true story”?
The movie, to me, makes no sense.
Now, several years later, we are awaiting the Luhrmann-produced Elvis biopic, and so far I am not entirely sure what we will be getting. First, Luhrmann is partnering with the Presley estate on the project, so right off the bat we have the possibility (probability) of a whitewashed story. The drug use will likely be diminished if not eliminated, relationships will be ignored or exaggerated (how many “best friends” did Elvis have, right?), and everything will wrap up nicely and trail off into one of those movie closings where a white-text-on-black-background paragraph tells us what happened next (“Elvis died on August 16, 1977, from a heart attack at Graceland mansion”). And that will be that. Critics will rave, and another re-write of history is done.
From Variety.com: “Luhrmann co-wrote the script with Craig Pearce. The movie centers on the relationship between the veteran manager and the young singer, who was born in 1935 to a poor family in the small town of Tupelo, Miss. Presley broke out in 1956 with ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ He met his future wife while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany and the couple married in 1967. They divorced in 1973.”
With this press release, we are told that the Luhrmann biopic will be about Elvis and his relationship with Parker. This makes sense, since the casting of A-lister Tom Hanks as Parker suggests he will play a main role in the film.
From Deadline.com: “The untitled drama covers the seminal legend’s growth from dirt poor singer to global icon, seen through the prism of his complex relationship over two decades with manager Colonel Tom Parker… The story will delve into their complex dynamic spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. Central to that journey is one of the most significant and influential people in Elvis’s life, Priscilla Presley.”
This is from another recent press release, just this past week. But hold on a minute. The film will supposedly focus on the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Parker, but we are now being told that Priscilla Presley was “central to that journey”? Really? Previous press releases did not include this part. I have been studying and researching Elvis Presley for more than 25 years and I have *never* read or been led to believe that Priscilla was a key element in the relationship between Elvis and Parker. I am not even sure how that could be. When Parker took on the role of Elvis’s manager in early 1956, Priscilla Beaulieu was 10 years old and didn’t know Elvis; when she met Elvis in 1959, she was 14; for most of the years Elvis was in Hollywood making movies, she was not yet a fully-legal adult (<21); and in May 1967 when she and Elvis married, she was just a few weeks shy of age 22. Their only daughter, Lisa Marie, was born in February the following year, and later that same year Priscilla has stated she began a brief affair. Elvis’s career took off again with the “Comeback Special” that aired in late 1968, and the Las Vegas years followed, along with non-stop touring. Elvis and Priscilla separated in February 1972. Tell me, then, exactly when was Priscilla playing a “central” role in the Presley/Parker relationship…and what exactly did she do in that role…? I seem to have missed it.
The obvious question is: How did Priscilla Presley, and I ask this with all due respect…but how did Priscilla Presley suddenly make it into this Presley/Parker film as a “central” figure? Is the film about Elvis, or does it focus on the Elvis/Parker relationship, or does it focus on that relationship with Priscilla in the mix? If you look through the index of Alanna Nash’s definitive accounting of the Presley/Parker relationship (“The Colonel”), you see the name “Priscilla Presley,” but nowhere next to her name do you see, “as central figure,” or, “as key player in relationship with Parker.” Instead, you see mention of the estate post-1977, the Graceland deed of trust, and the marriage/divorce of Elvis and Priscilla. Did Nash, unquestionably the foremost authority on Colonel Parker, simply miss Priscilla’s role in this? Of course not. (Note that Alanna Nash has not been asked to consult on the Luhrmann film, so the film will lack Nash’s unique perspective, a significant disservice to the audience. What is the rationale for leaving out key sources of information and insight? Did EPE not allow it?)
If the actor cast as Elvis and the actress cast as Priscilla are both very young, and no actors have been cast as the older versions of them, then are we to assume that “older Elvis” is not part of this film? Will “older Priscilla” (granted, still fairly young) not be represented? Or will makeup artists handle the physical changes in appearance?
And finally, another key question: if the Presley estate (the corporate side) is involved in this project, where does that leave us in terms of the more difficult aspects of Elvis’s life, health, and ultimate death? As I suggest above, will the darker parts of the story be glossed over, or will they be changed, or will they be ignored? Will Elvis no longer exist post-Aloha (January 1973), as we see with EPE merchandise? Doesn’t the involvement of Corporate EPE pretty much assure that the filmed version of Elvis will match their sanitized, commercially-viable version of Elvis? More to the point, can the involvement of the Presley estate *ever* result in a complete, accurate, and truthful account of Elvis Presley’s life and death?