With the release of the Baz Luhrmann's new Elvis epic, we look back at why the King still has such a strong hold over our imagination all these years later
There’s a scene, towards the end of the last ever filmed concert by Elvis Presley, when he sits at the piano and performs a solo version of “Unchained Melody”.
It’s one of the most painful moments ever recorded by camera in rock ‘n’ roll history; so much so that it was edited out of the TV movie of the show, screened later that year after his sudden death just six weeks after this performance was taped.
Elvis Presley performing during his 1973 television special Aloha From Hawaii
His hair is a greying helmet that droops down to his eyebrows. Sweat runs in rivulets down his face. His corpulent frame is squeezed into a bejewelled, white jumpsuit. Presley looks far, far older than his 42 years.
Gesturing as if to say, “I’ve got it,” to his bandmate Charlie Hodge, who is holding the microphone towards The King’s lips, Presley bellows out a raw, pleading, scarred and turbulent version of “Unchained Melody”, the piano chords crashing like spume against his vocals.
"Elvis seemingly [uses] the song to howl against his pain"
The tune, over-played to the point of numbness over the decades, is here scraped back to its bare essence with Elvis seemingly using the song to howl against his pain, all the while knowing that he is powerless to stop the madness and addictions that have wrecked his body.
You can watch the whole clip on YouTube. And it’s this moment which, perhaps more than those images of the young, beautiful, Southern boy, gyrating his pelvis and inventing rock ‘n’ roll from the ghettos of Memphis, that shows why, almost half a century after his death, the life and music of Elvis Presley still fascinates and endures.
Bringing his legacy to the big screen
It’s an eyebrow-raising line up of big screen big hitters which will introduce a whole new generation to the complex, oft-debauched, sometimes sinister but ultimately revolutionary impact of Elvis’s music—though there is an immense amount of cliché, shtick and gallows humour to wade through first before any neophyte can truly access The King.
A photo of Elis Presley promoting the film Jailhouse Rock, 1957
Unlike The Beatles or Bob Dylan, about whom jokes are rarely told, Elvis, even before his death, had become a bizarre mutation of his former self. The tired Vegas residencies, the weight gain, the all-too-apparent heavy drug use and his inability (even at his peak) to create a defining masterpiece album mean that, to many, Elvis has been reduced to little more than a Liberace-esque joke: a fat man with bad dress sense who died on the toilet.
An audience that transcended boundaries
So why is Elvis still in the public consciousness at all, even if it is just in this diminished, comic-book form? Other rock ‘n’ roll pioneers from Bill Haley to Gene Vincent are, these days, only of interest to musicologists and an ever-shrinking group of fringe fanatics, permanently in thrall to the radical American sounds of the mid 1950s.
Yet Elvis breached boundaries of geography, race, age and previous musical affiliations to create an all-encompassing audience that no artist has done before or since.
By the time of that fateful “Unchained Melody” performance, the demographics of his fans bordered on the bizarre; children, teenagers, blue rinse grandmothers, screaming groupies and middle-aged couples all showed up to his live shows meaning that The King, teetering on bankruptcy by 1977, was still able to sell out stadiums, despite declining record sales and a lifestyle that went beyond extravagant and into the realms of pathological excess.
"Elvis breached boundaries of geography, race, age and previous musical affiliations to create an all-encompassing audience"
What did those audience members see in this afflicted, damaged, middle-aged man that so many music lovers today don’t?
The short answer is that Elvis’s legacy has been handled spectacularly badly. From the early 1980s spates of low budget made-for-TV biopics of his life to the shoddy reissuing of his albums to the array of tawdry biographies of his life, some written by his former closest friends, it seems that the task of removing the “real” Elvis from the farrago of gold chains, burgers and sedatives has proved beyond those tasked with managing his estate.
The essential energy of the music
Elvis was given a guitar-shaped key to the city by Mayor James L. Ballard when he returned to Tupelo, Mississippi in 1956
What the Luhrmann film might, just might, do is capture the essential energy of the music again and, perhaps, even remove it from the depleted image of the man himself.
Because that’s all it will take for anyone to start loving Elvis, or rediscover elements of him that they have long forgotten. Go to YouTube again and watch (or listen to) “Baby, Let’s Play House”, “See See Rider”, “Kentucky Rain”, “Steamroller Blues” or “Guitar Man”.
"What the Luhrmann film might, just might, do is capture the essential energy of the music again"
These are the Elvis songs (and there are dozens more of them) that haven’t succumbed to the dullness of over-familiarity. Unlike The Beatles, about whom we now seem to know more than we do about our own selves, the Elvis back catalogue is dizzyingly rich in tunes that the overwhelming majority of music lovers have barely heard at all.
The absolute mess that is the Presley archive can be chaotic to sift through. The amount of cut-priced Greatest Hits albums and hotch-potch compilations mean much of the best of The King is in the musical boon docks, far, far down the Spotify playlist.
But just as Elvis himself went to immense efforts to find the music of young, Black blues and country singers in his native Memphis in the early 1950s, so it’s now time for us to fish deep into the further reaches of the Elvis oeuvre.
For that is where the true essence, beauty, energy, vitality and soul of Elvis lies. And it’s far more durable than any pair of blue suede shoes.
Cover image © Rossano aka Bud Care
Read more: 10 Awesome Elvis songs you've never heard
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