Looking for Elvis
In films large and small, allusions to the King continue to pepper the silver screen
Elvis died 29 years ago tomorrow, but he continues to appear in more movies each year than any of today’s top box office draws.
Of course, most of these appearances are fleeting, cinematic shout-outs. Still, they indicate that Elvis Presley continues to loom large in the pop-culture consciousness.
If 29 isn’t a particularly notable anniversary, how about this number: This story represents The Commercial Appeal’s tenth annual survey of “Elvis Allusions in the Movies.”
From Elvis Tribute Week 2005 to Elvis Tribute Week 2006, I took note of each Elvis reference I saw in a movie screened theatrically in Memphis. I counted 27 such allusions, although several occurred in local productions unlikely to be seen outside of the city.
As usual, Elvis took many forms. In “The King,” his name had symbolic meaning; in “Walk the Line,” he was an actual character in the movie; in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” he was a sight gag. In other words, Elvis, as always, means whatever you want him to mean.
Here’s the list:
In the grim “The King,” which opened Friday at Malco’s Ridgeway Four (just in time to make this list), talented young Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal is an ex-sailor named Elvis (the movie’s title also has a religious meaning). One of the film’s small jokes is that nobody in the Texas town where Elvis alights ever comments on the significance or distinctiveness of his name, not even his long-lost dad (William Hurt).
“Elvis” also appears in the gangland caper film “Lucky Number Slevin,” starring Bruce Willis. ” ‘Sloe’ — that’s him.
‘Elvis’ — that’s me,” says a thug (Dorian Missick), introducing himself and his fellow gunsel. Elvis fuctions as as a chess partner as well as a bodyguard for a crime kingpin simply referred to as the Boss (Morgan Freeman). Says the Boss: “Elvis lets me win.”
“Let’s give him a name,” says a kid in the Ron Howard-produced cartoon feature “Curious George,” after a group of children at the zoo encounter the playful title monkey. One of the first suggestions: “Elvis.”
Appropriately, the mostly made-in-Memphis Academy Award-winning Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” was a mini-treasure trove of Elvis references, especially during the scenes depicting the Sun Records portion of Cash’s career. We first see Elvis (played by Tyler Hilton) when Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) comes upon Sun Studio, apparently just as Elvis is cutting “Milkcow Blues Boogie”; the moment is an epiphany for Johnny. Later, on the road, we see Elvis onstage singing “That’s Alright,” right after Johnny sings “Rock and Roll Ruby.” At one point, Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday) hands Johnny some pills, with the endorsement: “Elvis takes ‘em.” The name of Elvis is even invoked when Johnny tries to seduce June Carter (Reese Witherspoon): “Prove Elvis wrong,” Johnny cajoles. “He says you can’t do nothin’ ain’t written on your calendar.”
In director Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” set “seven years from now,” drug-addled friends Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. are discussing an “old” movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a professional impostor (they’re referencing “Catch Me If You Can”) when Harrelson gestures with his hands in front of his waist — indicating a fat stomach — and says the movie was made “before Leonardo hit his Elvis stage.”
Fat Elvis references and Robert Downey Jr. also meet in the jokey “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” in which a plump Elvis impersonator walks into Downey’s hospital room just when the actor (playing a petty thief) is talking about how much he hates it in movies when characters you think are dead turn up alive; Abraham Lincoln also walks in.
Director Malcolm Ingram’s documentary “Small Town Gay Bar,” which played at the recent Outflix Festival at Muvico’s Peabody Place 22, begins with a shot of a transvestite standing near the “Birthplace of Elvis Presley” historical marker in front of the singer’s boyhood home in Tupelo. “Hi, welcome to Lake County, Mississippi,” the cross-dresser says. “Elvis Presley’s birthplace, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll — also home to Rumors Nightclub, the only gay bar in Northeast Mississippi.”
In “Why We Fight,” Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the influence on national foreign policy of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower labeled “the military-industrial complex,” Ike’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, sees Elvis in a nostaligic light when she comments about the Cold War: “We look back today, and we think the 1950s was a period of Elvis Presley and poodle skirts. But in fact it was a very dangerous period of time.”
“C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” — a faux documentary about an alternate America — speculates what would have happened to white entertainers enamored of R&B if the South had won the war. “Performers like Elvis Presley imitated black artists and were censored and arrested,” says the narrator.
The excellent Spanish crime comedy “El Crimen Perfecto” (”The Perfect Crime”) includes a fantasy sequence that dramatizes the gossipy speculation over the whereabouts of a vanished department store sales clerk. “Others say he’s in Vegas with Elvis, but that’s unlikely,” says the narrator, as the screen fills with a shot of the missing man, partying with a jumpsuited King in a casino.
The failed “Daltry Calhoun” — a quirky made-in-Middle Tennessee suburban cornpone comedy from first-time writer-director Katrina Holden Bronson, the daughter of Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland — was bursting with Elvis allusions, as one might expect from a film executive-produced by proud Elvis fan Quentin Tarantino. A teenage girl named June (Sophie Traub) buys a poster of the jumpsuited Elvis in a small-town record and video store; later, the poster turns up on her bedroom wall. She also asks the store clerk: “Do you have that old Elvis-Sinatra duet on cassette?” Juliette Lewis alludes to Elvis, and June bursts out: “You knew him?!” But it turns out Lewis’ character is talking about her “dear, departed husband,” named Elvis.
Unsurprisingly, Elvis photos are seen when Orlando Bloom visits Sun Studio during a cross-country road trip in Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown.”
A Southern California wall mural depicting Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles is glimpsed in passing in the Edward Norton movie “Down in the Valley.”
A singing hillbilly goat who brags about his many sets of substitute horns is seen wearing an Elvis-style pompadour and Elvis gold-framed sunglasses when he hits the lyric “I got horns that come with hair” in the goofy computer-animated fairy-tale spoof “Hoodwinked.”
Another CGI Elvis allusion occurs when a sideburned vehicle, apparently an automotive caricature of the King, is seen in the Pixar hit “Cars.”
The song “9 Million Pictures” by Augie Meyers can be heard in the background of a diner scene in the Tommy Lee Jones modern Western, “The Three Burials of Meliquiades Estrada.” Sings Meyers: “I got a picture of my family/ To remind me of what I have/ I got a picture of Elvis/ To remind me of what he had/ I got a picture of Jesus…”
The lyric “Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant (squat) to me” can be heard when Public Enemy’s rap classic “Fight the Power” plays during a bonfire party in the Gulf War movie, “Jarhead.”
Jayce Bartok’s “Altered by Elvis,” a 53-minute documentary about people forever changed by Elvis, screened in March during the Memphis Film Forum’s Memphis International Film Festival.
Also screening during the International Film Festival was the documentary “Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley,” about the singer-songwriter who drowned in 1997 in the Wolf River Harbor here. When the film reaches the Memphis portion of Buckley’s life, the inevitable montage includes a shot of an advertising sign with a picture of Elvis that reads: “Come Home to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Elvis Presley’s Graceland.”
By evocative coincidence, Elvis’ recording of “Love Me Tender” is playing over the sound system of a small pharmacy in Mayfield, Ky., when Memphis photographer William Eggleston and his son, Winston, enter the store to buy tape in Michael Almereyda’s documentary “William Eggleston in the Real World.”
Black-and-white footage of Elvis in his prime is seen on a silent motel television in “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” a documentary tour of the Gothic South that screened during the Indie Memphis Film Festival. Says rocker David Johansen, in the motel room: “Man, I wish ‘Kojak’ was on.”
Also at the Indie Memphis festival — where it won the local Best Narrative Feature award — was Old School Pictures’ “Act One,” in which a flashback-to-boyhood sequence finds the hero wearing an Elvis T-shirt as he discusses the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with his best friend.
The first “Li’l Film Fest” — a theme-based mini-festival organized by LivefromMemphis.com — asked participants to create short films using footage of the implosion of the Baptist Hospital on Union. Geoffrey Brent Shrewsbury’s “Happy Holidays” was scored to the King’s recording of “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”; it was the only film in the festival to connect the hospital’s fate with that of its most famous patient, Elvis Presley.
Elvis can be seen on a reproduction of a vintage poster in the the local film “Something About Destiny.”
Bryan Foshee’s production, “Oz’s Lion,” screened at the MeDiA Co-op in January, included a line in which a character was described as “better than Elvis.”
The end credits for “Hard Candy,” a psychological suspense film, included “Production Dog — Presley.”
Does this count? The star of the South African film “Tsotsi,” this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is a township thug humanized after he discovers a baby in a vehicle he carjacks. The actor’s last name is Chweneyagae; his first name is Presley.