Magazine article USA TODAY

The King's Ghost Haunts the Movies

Magazine article USA TODAY

The King's Ghost Haunts the Movies

Article excerpt

IT IS HARD to think of a celebrity whose image is as enduring as that of Elvis Presley. Dead more than 20 years, and recalled by many younger folk as a fat lounge singer, Elvis is everywhere. After he wound up on a postage stamp, one might expect him next on Mt. Rushmore. The culture industry may be making more money out of him in death than he earned in his 42 years of life, during which he transformed American music.

Many will take issue with the latter statement, holding that Frank Sinatra lays a more valid claim to this particular crown, or that Elvis merely bleached the blues, making very vital black rhythm and blues palatable to a white audience. I'm partisan on this. Elvis Presley was the genuine article, that is until he lost control of his career and his life. He was one of the purest expressions of the fusion of various American musical trends that this country has ever seen. In an age when pop stars were created by public relations firms, advertising, and hype by all elements of the media, it is little wonder that Elvis turned Eisenhower-era America on its ear. Presley came across as raw and savage to a highly repressed, conformist nation, committing the almost unpardonable sin of not only singing the black man's music, but doing so with eye shadow and limp wrists and wiggling hips. He was an affront to all the bigotry this country holds dear, and the nation put him through an appropriate--to its mind--homogenization.

Then came the terrible decline, ending in addiction to food and drugs, a sad caricature. Nevertheless, Elvis endures, so much so that he is virtually the patron saint of American popular culture, especially the movies, where he is invoked at regular intervals. This part of his legacy is a little strange. Although Presley had considerable acting talent--testified to by directors as esteemed as Don Siegel ("Dirty Harry") and Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca")--he seldom got a shot at a decent role. When given half a chance, his talents were formidable, as demonstrated in "King Creole" (1958), "Flaming Star" (1960), "Wild in the Country" (1961), and even his early vehicles "Love Me Tender" (1956), "Loving You" (1957), and "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). Reportedly, he was offered some choice roles, including leads in "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "A Star is Born." The story goes that Elvis' hick management wanted to protect his "image" as a quiet country boy, thus confining Presley to a decade of overwhelmingly awful pictures.

The cinema, the medium unkindest to Elvis, now pays him a peculiar, often very wrongheaded homage. Presley is used to create the ambience in some rather raunchy films, his presence signifying less rebelliousness than something vaguely sinister. At some points, he is an absent presence, as in Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" (1989), about a couple of young Japanese tourists who wander around Memphis, looking for the King's home. Here, Elvis is a dead king, presiding over a wasteland of ennui and kitsch.

In David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" (1990), Nicholas Cage creates a character who draws most of his gestures from Elvis, even to a point of doing a rendition of "Love Me Tender" in a sleazy New Orleans bar. Lynch sees Presley's heart as wild, but ultimately perverse, since the world of the film is drenched in treachery, transgressive sex (always seen by Lynch as ugly), and sadistic violence. …

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