What to Watch While Coming Down From Elvis


Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a bit of a bait and switch. Despite being named after the King, this nearly three-hour musical is primarily told not from the perspective of the titular character (played by Austin Butler) but that of his manager: the oddly accented, smugly delusional Colonel Tom Parker (a very prosthetics-adorned Tom Hanks). It is through Parker’s self-serving narration that we see Elvis Presley’s celebrity explode and then eventually dim as Parker manipulates him into a long-term Las Vegas contract and surrounds him with doctors who keep him medicated and addicted. For as much as Elvis condemns the music-industry machine, though, it also catalogues and celebrates Presley’s myriad talents, interests, and influences. If you’re looking to dive deeper into the icon, we’ve got watchlist recommendations for you.

This story, about an up-and-coming ingénue and a fading megastar who cross paths on their respective ways up and down the cliff of American celebrity, has been made four times; the third, 1976 adaptation was originally supposed to star Presley. In Luhrmann’s film, Butler’s Elvis — fading and frustrated — hopes that A Star Is Born will be a reinvigoration of his career, but in real life, Parker put an end to negotiations with his high fee demands. Kris Kristofferson would go on to take the role opposite Barbra Streisand, and the resulting movie suffers a bit from their uneven chemistry. It’s impossible to watch A Star Is Born without wondering what Presley would have been like in it and then there’s always the Bradley Cooper–Lady Gaga version to compare it to. “I just wanted to take another look at you” indeed.

A Star Is Born (1976) is available to stream on HBO Max. A Star Is Born (2018) is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

There is a certain subset of mid-century American icons who endure, through some mixture of beauty and tragedy, in our collective cultural imagination, and of that group, James Dean was one of Elvis’s own icons. While Butler’s Elvis and Olivia DeJonge’s Priscilla (14 when she met the adult singer, a detail that Luhrmann’s movie elides) are falling in love in Germany, the singer shares with her his dreams of becoming a serious dramatic actor. Elvis isn’t flirting with actress Natalie Wood through their pen-pal relationship, he explains to Priscilla, but instead asking her about Hollywood and sharing how much he idolizes Wood’s Rebel Without a Cause co-star Dean (an understandable reaction to the immensely talented actor, who starred in only three films before his death in a car accident at 24 years old). Presley’s adoration for Dean comes up again later in Elvis when he points out the Griffith Observatory, where Rebel Without a Cause’s climactic finale took place, and while all three of Dean’s films are classics, Nicholas Ray’s coming-of-age movie is a sensible starting point.

Rebel Without a Cause is available to stream on HBO Max.

Presley made dozens of films after returning from his U.S. Army deployment to Germany, and their quality varies widely. Probably the best of the lot is Viva Las Vegas, in which Presley and Ann-Margret (a year after her wonderfully memorable turn in Bye Bye Birdie) play a race-car driver turned waiter and a swimming teacher, respectively, who fall for each other in the City of Sin. The song-and-dance numbers are flashy, and Las Vegas looks slickly appealing, and the film is probably the best example of Presley’s comedic timing and awareness of his own public persona. Simply put, it’s fun, and you won’t get the theme song out of your head for days.

Viva Las Vegas is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video

The Presley family and estate have been very deliberate with the projects they bless, and before Luhrmann’s Elvis, they threw their support behind 2018’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher. That documentary feels intimate throughout, with personal anecdotes from Priscilla about her late husband and a fair amount of footage from the archives at Graceland, including a clip of Elvis’s beloved mother, Gladys, singing gospel. Director Thom Zimny keeps the documentary tuned in to Presley’s music, what he wanted to express through it, and how it changed and transformed over time, and the result is an immersive viewing experience that shifts attention from the gossip, scandal, and misbehavior that sometimes obfuscate the reality that Elvis was really, really good at this.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher is available to stream on HBO Max.

Back in the ’90s, when asked about Presley during an interview with Bob Costas, blues icon Ray Charles didn’t hold back his frustration while explaining that Presley’s initial popularity came from how he mimicked Black music and Black dance styles for a white audience. Whether Charles was right that Presley was a “punk” rather than “the King” is up for debate, but his point that Presley’s initial styling was grounded in Black traditions is correct, and Luhrmann incorporates it early on into Elvis. In the musical film, Butler’s Elvis grows up as one of the few white faces in a Black neighborhood, listens to Black singers, and attends a Black church, and his sound is shaped by figures including B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). The documentary Gunsmoke Blues features a number of those musicians on the road, in concert, and speaking about their experiences in the industry, including with Elvis. An interview with Thornton about her song “Hound Dog,” which would later become a breakthrough for Elvis, is both enlightening and infuriating for what it reveals about how Black artists were treated at the time.

Gunsmoke Blues is available to watch on YouTube

Presley is surrounded by people in Elvis, whether it’s his Memphis Mafia crew of associates, assistants, and hangers-on or people complicit in Parker’s manipulation of the artist. But he seems most at home in Black neighborhoods and nightclubs, and his most clear-eyed friend is B.B. King, whose warnings about Parker fall on deaf ears. King was, of course, a legend in his own right whose contributions to blues and rock and roll are immeasurable. B.B. King: The Life of Riley (2012) is seemingly the only documentary about his life, and some of the talking heads in the film (Eric Clapton, Bill Cosby) have certainly turned out to be awful. But as a portrait of King, The Life of Riley makes a case for his clear genius.

B.B. King: The Life of Riley is available to stream for free on Peacock.

By the late 1960s, Presley’s decision to pursue acting — and Parker’s push for him to work as much as possible, with three or so films a year — meant that he had faded somewhat from the country’s musical landscape. What Parker and NBC imagined as a treacly Christmas special, Presley and producer Bob Finkel seized as an opportunity to show off what made the singer so magnetic in the first place. Luhrmann devotes a significant chunk of Elvis to the creation and recording of this TV event, and Butler does well mimicking Presley during “I Can Dream,” a song inspired by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But Presley’s actual performance is hair-raisingly good, as is the rest of the special.

Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video

Limited series have become the purview of cable networks and streaming services these days, but in decades past, the miniseries was a prime-time network-TV favorite. Elvis: The Early Years aired on CBS as a special event in May 2005, and although it may sound odd that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham and Velvet Goldmine) played Presley, he’s actually pretty good! Meyers’s intensity and oddball energy propel the performance forward, and Randy Quaid is believably nefarious as Parker. Although the miniseries lost out on all six Emmy Awards it was nominated for, Meyers’s Golden Globe for Best Actor was deserved.

Elvis: The Early Years is available to watch for free on Amazon Freevee

Before filmmaker John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell went on to make an array of cult favorites in the horror and sci-fi genres — Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China among them — the two of them first collaborated on a made-for-TV movie about the King. A year after making Halloween, Carpenter took on this ABC production that focused primarily on Elvis’s most popular years and did not delve into his ’70s decline. Russell is unexpectedly effective as the singer (so much so that he’d go on to voice and play Elvis a couple more times in his career), and as a different turn from a performer whose badass persona was shaped by those later Carpenter films, it’s worth a watch.

Elvis (1979) is available on DVD and Blu-ray.



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