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From the minute he burst out of Memphis in the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley became a figure of American myth. But what about Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant and expansive movie about the singer, “Elvis?” Is it more mythmaking, or does it stick to the facts about the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley?
In a way, doing a fact-check on a Baz Luhrmann movie is silly. This is the director who relocated Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” from Verona to South Beach Miami, who started the movie “Moulin Rouge!” with the card “Paris 1900” and then within 10 minutes brought in songs from “The Sound of Music,” Nat King Cole, the Beatles and Nirvana.
The fun of Luhrmann is that you don’t get historical accuracy, you get a delirious kind of Baz-mania.
Still, “Elvis” lays out the life of a real person of considerable import, one whose story has long been co-opted and distorted by both admirers and detractors. While watching it, you can’t help but wonder if the things you’re seeing on-screen, performed by Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker, really happened.
Overall, it’s best to think of “Elvis” as an extended fantasia that uses some facts from Elvis’ life to tell a condensed, simplified, heightened and occasionally fictionalized version of his story. Since that’s what Luhrmann set out to do, pointing out the moments that aren’t accurate is beside the point when it comes to a very entertaining movie that shows great respect to the main subject (and considerably less to Colonel Parker). But if you want to know the life that prompted this retelling, read on.
FYI, my conclusions here are drawn from numerous sources – but when in doubt, I turned to the two-volume Elvis biography from author Peter Guralnick, “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” and “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.” Those are the most thorough and comprehensive works on Presley, and Guralnick is an informed admirer without the kind of ax to grind that you often find in books about the King.
Semi-warning: This story contains spoilers for “Elvis,” if you consider the biographical details of a very famous person who died 45 years ago spoilers.
THE EARLY YEARS
Did Elvis first unveil his onstage gyrations at the Louisiana Hayride?
In the film, manager-to-be Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) drives to the Hayride, a less prestigious alternative to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, to see this white kid who has made a Black-sounding record, “That’s All Right.” There, he sees a nervous Elvis blossom into a star in front of his eyes, gyrating in ways that send the teenage girls (and their mothers) in the audience into paroxysms of desire as he sings “Baby, Let’s Play House.”
The banter with the Hayride announcer makes it clear that the film is depicting Elvis’ first appearance on the show, which took place on Oct. 16, 1954, after he’d made a disastrous debut on the Opry stage. But Elvis had already been known to gyrate on stage by this point, and the real Hayride story is actually more interesting than the movie’s version.
In that first appearance, Elvis did two shows, performing the same two songs – the single and its B-side, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” By all accounts, he was so nervous and uncomfortable at the first show that the audience didn’t know what to think. But after a backstage pep talk from Sun Records head Sam Phillips, Elvis came out more relaxed and the audience responded wildly. “When he came back out, he destroyed them,” country star Merle Kilgore said. “They absolutely exploded.”
Contrary to what the movie shows, Colonel Parker did not attend this show. Guitarist Scotty Moore was Elvis’ unofficial manager at that point, though Memphis deejay Bob Neal (who goes unmentioned in the film) did some bookings and would soon take over as manager. Colonel Parker, who worked with Neal on bookings, did see Elvis at the Hayride three months later.
Did Elvis really see B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Little Richard and others at clubs in Mississippi and on Memphis’ Beale Street?
Presley was known to frequent the clubs on Beale Street, and King, Tharpe, Little Richard and many others played those clubs.
A sequence in which a young Elvis peeks into a rural shack where Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr.) is performing a doomy, painfully slow and emphatic version of “That’s All Right” in falsetto is more fanciful, since there are no records of Crudup performing the song in that style. But this is a flashback so maybe Elvis remembered it differently.
Did Elvis and Colonel Parker agree on an exclusive management and promotion deal on the Ferris wheel at a carnival?
Of course not.
Among the huge number of items of Elvis merchandise that the Colonel made and sold, did he sell “I HATE ELVIS” buttons?
Yes, because Parker wanted to make sure he and Elvis made money anytime anybody bought something with Elvis’ name on it. There were periods, according to Guralnick, when the hate buttons sold nearly as well as the “I Love Elvis” ones.
Was Elvis really forced to sing “Hound Dog” to a real basset hound on “The Steve Allen Show” while wearing a white tie and tails, and was it a key moment that spurred him to be himself on stage?
In the film, the humiliation of that moment on the Allen show made Elvis defiant and unrepentant about the gyrations that had caused some to label him a menace to polite society.
In real life, Allen – never a fan of rock ‘n’ roll – did ask for Elvis to wear a tux and sing to the dog, because he was trying to avoid the kind of uproar that had followed Elvis’ recent appearance on Milton Berle’s show, where his deliciously unhinged version of “Hound Dog” caused a sensation. And yes, Elvis was embarrassed by the performance – and also by a subsequent “comedy” sketch, not included in Luhrmann’s film, that viciously mocked the kind of rural Southern environment from which Elvis had come.
At his next show, which took place three days later on July 4 in Memphis, Elvis prefaced his performance by saying (in a line that does show up in the film), “You know, those people in New York are not gonna change me none. I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”
Did that Memphis show really end in a riot after only one song, “Trouble,” the way it’s depicted in the film?
No. He didn’t sing “Trouble” at that show because he didn’t know that song yet. (It was written for his 1958 movie “King Creole.”) The eight-song, half-hour set opened with “Heartbreak Hotel” and ended with “Hound Dog,” and the crowd was wildly enthusiastic but Elvis didn’t have to be pulled off stage early.
As for the unveiling of “the real Elvis,” local newspaper reporter Bob Johnston described the controlled performance as “about halfway between the ‘old’ Elvis and the ‘new’ Elvis” in the Memphis Press-Scimitar the following day.
In 1957-58, was it really “either the Army or jail” for Elvis, as Colonel Parker says in the film?
Let’s call this hyperbole from the Colonel. (Just because he’s the film’s narrator doesn’t mean he’s a reliable narrator.) Yes, Elvis was wildly popular and also wildly threatening to conservative cultural watchdogs, and he faced his share of petitions and threats. But he was only arrested once, after he got in a fight with a belligerent gas-station employee, and he was quickly acquitted of all charges.
In its attempt to streamline a narrative with plenty of twists and turns, “Elvis” oversimplifies the story to be something along the lines of “Elvis gets big/Elvis draws protests/Elvis tones things down/Elvis goes back to his raucous self/Everybody hates Elvis/Elvis goes into the Army to prove he’s a nice guy.” But it’s nowhere near that cut and dried: The July 4 Memphis show that Colonel Parker says in the film proves “we may never book another date or sell another record” was described by Guralnick as “a moment of unmitigated triumph, a moment of pure and unsullied splendor that would be forever frozen in time.”
Really, B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) probably has the most accurate lines in the film when he tells Elvis, “They’re not gonna put you in jail. They might put me in jail for walking across the street, but you’re a famous white boy. Too many people are making too much money off you.”
Did Elvis meet his wife-to-be, Priscilla Beaulieu, while he was in the Army in Germany, and could they have listened to a recording of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in his room there?
He did meet Priscilla in Germany in 1959, when she was only 14. (Olivia DeJonge, the 24-year-old actress who plays her, seems older in the film.) And by all reports they did listen to a lot of music in his room, but it couldn’t have been “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the song with which he would end his shows for much of his final decade.
Never mind the fact that the version of the song they’re listening to is by Kacey Musgraves, who wouldn’t be born for another 30 years. Nobody could have recorded the song in 1959, because it was written and submitted as a demo by songwriters Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss for consideration in the 1961 movie “Blue Hawaii.” Elvis’ version in that film was the song’s first recording.
(The song’s melody was, however, based on an 18th century French song, “Plaisir d’amour,” and Elvis could conceivably have heard a recording of that song.)
Was Colonel Tom Parker, as the film alleges, born in the Netherlands and in the U.S. illegally?
Yes. The Colonel, who was neither a colonel nor named Tom Parker, was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands and came to the U.S. without documentation at the age of 20. In an attempt to hide his true status, Parker claimed to be from Huntington, West Virginia, and tried to pass off his accent as Southern.
Did Colonel Parker talk with the weird accent that Tom Hanks uses in the movie?
There’s a significant amount of Dutch mixed in with Hanks’ odd phrasing – but if you watch this rare interview with the Colonel on ABC’s “Nightline” in 1987, he sounds a lot less European than Hanks does.
After seeing the film, one person close to Elvis who knew the Colonel well said, “I do not remember that accent.”
THE HOLLYWOOD YEARS
Was Elvis the highest paid actor in Hollywood history, as Colonel Parker says?
Colonel Parker says so in his narration, but that’s probably another Colonel snow job. Elvis hit the $1 million-per-movie mark for “Harum Scarum” in 1965, but by that point Marlon Brando had already been paid $1.25 million for “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1962 and Elizabeth Taylor received $1 million for “Cleopatra” in 1963.
Or course, Elvis made three movies a year and Marlon and Liz wouldn’t dream of doing that.
THE 1968 COMEBACK SPECIAL
Did Elvis meet Steve Binder and Bones Howe for the first time at the Hollywood sign?
At the beginning of the section of the film that takes the most liberties with what really happened, the Hollywood sign makes a nice metaphor for things that were once vibrant but have grown “broken down and beat up,” in Elvis’ words. But that sign was not where Elvis took his meetings, and it’s not where he first met the two men who would become the director and sound engineer of the 1968 NBC TV special forever be known as his “comeback” special.
In fact, the meeting – in which Elvis admitted that he was sick of making bad movies and wanted to do something of substance rather than simply follow the Colonel’s wishes for an hour of Christmas carols – took place in Binder and Howe’s office on the Sunset Strip. Perhaps surprisingly, the film omits one notable moment, when Binder and Howe took him out onto Sunset Blvd. and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was surprised and humbled to find that none of the people who passed by recognized him or had any idea who he was.
Did Elvis, Binder and Howe double-cross Colonel Parker, NBC and sponsor Singer by pretending to go along with the Christmas-special idea but then shooting something completely different?
“Elvis” would have you believe that it came as a surprise to the Colonel, the network and the sponsor when Elvis came out in black leather and began singing rock songs during the show’s taping. This is fiction.
Elvis didn’t like the idea of a Christmas special and also didn’t like arguing with the Colonel, but executive producer Bob Finkel made the case to the Colonel that they should do something different. The Colonel signed off on the idea in early May, almost two months before the taping began, with the caveat that RCA had to get a soundtrack album and a Christmas single out of the show.
Was Robert Kennedy assassinated during the taping of the ’68 special?
No. Kennedy’s assassination, which is shown as the impetus for Elvis junking the proposed Christmas finale and substituting the hastily-written song “If I Can Dream,” took place on the third day of preproduction: June 5, 1968. That was almost three weeks before the June 27-30 taping. The assassination, which followed the killing of Martin Luther King by one month, did affect Elvis, but it didn’t impact the filming.
Did they have a full Christmas set prepared, and then at the last minute swing the cameras around to shoot “If I Can Dream” against the iconic ELVIS backdrop?
Absolutely not. Colonel Parker kept insisting that the show end with a Christmas song long after he relented on the overall format. But while ‘If I Can Dream” was written late in the preproduction period, the Colonel signed off on its use almost a week prior to its filming. (“When Binder came out of the dressing room with Elvis’ wholehearted commitment to it, the Colonel never hesitated to embrace the tactical high ground,” Guralnick wrote.)
The idea that the production team would have built an entire set, pretended to stage a Christmas number and then pulled a switch as the cameras rolled is one of the movie’s more ludicrous inventions.
THE VEGAS YEARS
When Elvis decided to return to live concerts in the aftermath of the ’68 special, did the International Hotel in Las Vegas really pay for the entire cost of his production?
That’s the Colonel’s big selling point in the movie, but no. Total band payroll for the four-week engagement, according to Guralnick, ran to about $80,000, which Elvis paid.
Did the first show begin with “That’s All Right,” end with “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and include “Suspicious Minds?”
No, yes and yes. The show began with “Blue Suede Shoes,” not “That’s All Right,” which was not performed. (An extended sequence that shows Elvis rehearsing the band for the latter song is thrilling, but we’re actually watching him rehearse an intro that wouldn’t be used until later tours.) “Suspicious Minds” was a centerpiece of the show, and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was the final number.
Did Colonel Parker sign Elvis to a five-year extension with the hotel on a napkin during that first show?
Almost. The hotel did exercise its contractual option for a single return engagement, along with a five-year extension, the day of the opening. Colonel Parker drew up the terms on a pink tablecloth in the hotel coffee shop. An actual document was drawn up a few days later.
Was Elvis in a Memphis hospital for exhaustion when Altamont and the Sharon Tate killings happened?
This is one of the film’s odder constructions. In the movie, Elvis is recuperating in a Memphis hotel for exhaustion when he hears a news report about the Altamont rock concert outside Livermore, California, at which four people died. Someone else in the room is reading a newspaper whose headline says Sharon Tate and four others have been murdered — victims of the Manson family massacre in Calfironia. Colonel Parker uses those events as a sign that the world is a dangerous place and Elvis should not travel outside the U.S. (Interesting, since they were deaths on American soil.)
But the timing is way off here. Elvis was in and out of Memphis hospitals for the last several years of his life, but there don’t seem to be any records of him being in one in December 1968, when Altamont took place. (That was also before his first Las Vegas engagement, when the movie clearly places it after.) And Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in August 1969, so there’s no chance of reading a newspaper article about the Tate murders while listening to a news broadcast about Altamont.
Colonel Parker did raise security concerns as a reason why Elvis shouldn’t tour internationally, but this particular sequence is impossible.
Why did the Colonel want to keep Elvis in the U.S.? Was it really because he didn’t have a passport and was afraid to travel outside the country for fear he’d be deported as an illegal alien?
The Colonel’s exact reasoning has always been murky. (After all, he didn’t attend every single show, so he could have stayed home while Elvis did a European tour.) But most observers think that his residency status was a main reason why he wanted to keep Elvis from going overseas, as “Elvis” suggests.
Did Colonel Parker also have huge gambling debts that made it beneficial for him to keep Elvis coming to Vegas?
Yes. Parker’s game of choice was roulette, and International Hotel president Alex Shoofey told Rolling Stone that the Colonel lost at least $1 million a year in the casino.
Did Elvis fire Colonel Parker on stage at his last International Hotel show?
The movie depicts an onstage rant that ends with Elvis screaming and firing the Colonel as the curtain is brought down, but the 1973 firing of Colonel Parker didn’t happen so publicly.
The scene is apparently based on a September 1973 show at the Las Vegas Hilton. (The film never tells or shows you this, but the International Hotel was sold to Hilton in 1971 and renamed, with its signage changed to reflect the new ownership.) Elvis did go into a mild rant during the final show in that Hilton engagement, but it was aimed at the hotel rather than the Colonel, because the Hilton had fired a kitchen employee Elvis particularly liked. After the show, Elvis and Colonel Parker had a loud argument and the singer did fire his manager.
After the firing, did Colonel Parker send Elvis an itemized bill for $8 million?
He did give a bill to Elvis and his father and business manager, Vernon Presley, for money he had spent or advanced to the star. The amount of that bill is uncertain. Most estimates have been in the $2-$5 million range. The movie’s version is much higher than that.
Regardless of the total, the outcome was the same: Elvis and Vernon went back with the Colonel rather than either pay the bill or challenge his accounting.
Was Elvis really going to co-star in “A Star Is Born” with Barbra Streisand? What killed the deal?
In March 1975, Streisand and her husband and producer Jon Peters attended one of Elvis’ Las Vegas shows. Afterward, they told him that they were making a new adaptation of “A Star Is Born” and would like Elvis to play the Norman Maine role of a former star whose career is on the skids as his wife skyrockets to stardom. Elvis was reportedly excited about what would have been his most substantial acting role ever, but the Colonel argued that Streisand and Peters would have her interests at heart, not Elvis’.
Streisand and Warner Bros. offered Presley $500,000 plus 10% of the profits after break-even. The Colonel countered by asking for $1 million, 50% from the first dollar, $100,000 in expenses and approval of any songs Elvis would perform. Streisand and Peters walked away and offered the role to Kris Kristofferson.
The Colonel later intimated that Elvis had signed off on the strategy of asking for more than they knew Streisand and Peters would agree to pay. Was he telling the truth? With the Colonel, you never know.
So what’s unequivocally true in “Elvis”?
Austin Butler’s moves (the guy did some serious studying), the recurring sense of what a thrill it must have been to see some of this in real time, the ability of the music to speak across time and the voice of Elvis that still lives.