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|ELVIS HAS NOT LEFT THE MOVIES!
Allusions to the King on screen
August 16, 2016 - By John Beifuss of The Commercial Appeal / Elvis Express Radio
|Aug. 16, 2017, will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.
This year, at The Commercial Appeal, we mark an Elvis milestone of our own: This is the 20th edition of "Elvis Allusions at the Movies," my annual checklist of the theatrically
released movies I watched during the past year — from Elvis Week 2015 to Elvis Week 2016 — that, in one way or another, paid homage to the King of Rock and Roll.
This year's Elvis sightings (or "hearings," in the case of soundtrack songs) were relatively sparse: I noticed the presence of Presley in only 16 feature films. (Some years, the
number has been closer to 30.)
Even so, the evidence is clear: If there's one building in every major town that Elvis never has left, that building is the movie theater.
Did I miss some movies? Let me know. Here's my list:
Often, the "Elvis Allusions" column is topped by a film that doesn't only reference Elvis but also is all about Elvis. This year, that film is Liza Johnson's quasi-comedic movie titled,
"Elvis & Nixon," inspired by the historic Dec. 21, 1970, Oval Office meeting between the King of Rock and Roll and the leader of the free world. With longtime Presley associate
Jerry Schilling as a consultant, the film was somewhat faithful to the facts in its particulars but fanciful in effect, especially in its casting of the eccentric-looking Michael Shannon as
an oddly ghoulish Elvis. (Nixon, meanwhile, was played by a jocular Kevin Spacey.)
Another movie that wouldn't exist without Elvis is Jeanie Finlay's "Orion: The Man Who Would Be King," a fascinating documentary about the late Jimmy Ellis, a singer whose
uncanny Presley vocal resemblance led him to don a mask and pursue a career as "Orion," a singer so mysterious that fans convinced themselves he might actually be Elvis, alive
after all. The movie screened during the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
In "The Conjuring 2," Elvis is as much a source of anti-demonic hope, renewal and strength as Jesus (the movie is filled with crucifixes) and the husband-and-wife ghostbusters Ed
and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Set in 1977 (though whether Elvis is still alive or already dead goes unmentioned), the movie finds Ed Warren bringing "a
little American culture" to a London haunted house in the form of the "Blue Hawaii" soundtrack album; the homeowner (Frances O'Connor) acknowledges that her kids used to love
listening to her ex-husband's Elvis record collection. To dispel the ghostly gloom, Ed, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, performs a sweetly awkward yet inspiring rendition of
"Can't Help Falling in Love" (complete with a "Thank yuh veruh much" Elvis-imitation conclusion), and the move ends with the Warrens affirming their love with a slow dance to that
very Elvis recording.
Another horror movie that name-checked the King was M. Night Shyamalan's creepy "The Visit." Kathryn Hahn plays the mother of two kids spending a week with their weird
grandparents; speaking by Skype, Mom remembers how much her own mother enjoyed her singing: "She thought I had a better voice than Olivia Newton-John. Olivia Newton-John
was like her Elvis."
A "little more action" is apparently what the Jennifer Lawrence title character is seeking when she blasts away at targets on a shooting range while the 1968 Elvis recording "A Little
Less Conversation" plays on the soundtrack in David O. Russell's "Joy."
In auteur Terrence Malick's woozy seventh feature film, "Knight of Cups," a disillusioned screenwriter (Christian Bale) and his stripper companion (Teresa Palmer) encounter an
Elvis impersonator in a black rhinestone jumpsuit while wandering around Las Vegas. "I thought you were dead," the stripper says to the performer, then asks the writer: "Do you
think I'll be as famous as Elvis?"
"Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America" — which screened this past Friday during the On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest — is a provocative
documentary about a black Washington musician who befriends Klansmen, convinces them to renounce racism, and collects their hoods and robes as trophies. Davis has toured
with Chuck Berry, but he's also, in his own words, "one of the biggest Elvis fans you'll ever meet," and he credits Berry and Presley with inspiring him to pursue a career in music.
During the movie's Memphis sequence, Davis visits Sun Studio and ponders a picture of the Million Dollar Quartet, commenting: "I've had the pleasure of meeting all four of these
men." In his hometown, outside the White House, he observes: "Not much bigger than Graceland." But during a debate with neo-Nazi Jeff Schoep, Davis asks, "Who invented rock,
then?" When Schoep answers "Elvis Presley," Davis responds: "You're not being serious, right?" He then lectures the white supremacist on Fats Domino, Little Richard and rhythm-
In the frenetic first-person point-of-view action film "Hardcore Henry," a cyborg running through a menu of potential voices tries out the sound of Presley: "Thank yuh, thank yuh
veruh much." Earlier, a lab assistant is seen wearing a T-shirt with an Elvis skull-face design.
According to the documentary "Tab Hunter Confidential," which screened at last year's Outflix Film Festival, screen teen idol turned pop singer Tab Hunter's 1957 hit "Young
Love" knocked Elvis' "Too Much" out of the No. 1 spot on the pop chart.
Screened at the 2015 On Location: Memphis festival (which was held in September), the Memphis hip-hop dance-culture documentary "Gangsta Walking: The Movie" finds rap
artist MJG testifying that Memphis is "the land of kings," citing Elvis and B.B. King, among others.
Another 2015 On Location: Memphis music documentary was "The Record Man," about Henry Stone, founder of pioneering Miami disco label TK Records (home of KC & the
Sunshine Band). "We changed music like the Beatles changed music, like Elvis Presley changed music," testifies Stone in the film, which contains several random Elvis visuals
(album covers, historical markers, and so on).
"Mississippi Grind" follows a pair of gambling addicts (Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn) on a tour of Mississippi River "gambling towns," including "Memphis, Tennessee," as
Mendelsohn's character announces in a humorous Elvis voice. In a scene at a dog track, an old African-American gentleman initiates a roll call of great Memphis- area recording
artists that includes Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and "even famous white folks you might have heard of — Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins ..."
Memphis horror auteur Jeremy Benson's "Girl in Woods" includes an allusion to the influence of Elvis when a soon-to-be-victim is overheard on his cellphone, talking to his wife
about their son: "Is Presley still up?" (I know at least one kid named Elvis, but I've never met a Presley.)
Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi soul singer Syl Johnson — who recorded some of his best-selling records for the Hi Records label in Memphis in the 1970s — is the focus of the
documentary "Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows," which screened at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. When he learns a box set of his recordings was nominated for a 2012
Grammy for "Best Historical Album" (along with reissues of "Band on the Run" and the complete 1956 Elvis masters), Johnson comments: "Just being nominated with Paul
McCartney and Elvis Presley ... Can you get any bigger than Elvis? I don't think so."
Inspired by intimate homemade audiotapes of Marlon Brando, which the actor recorded for years as a sort of audio diary, the documentary "Listen to Me Marlon" includes a shot
of a vintage Film and Filming magazine cover with this headline: "The Birth of Cool: Could There Have Been Elvis Without Brando?"
The aggressively strange standup comic played by unsettling real-life comedian Gregg Turkington in "Entertainment" (another Indie Memphis exclusive) tells this joke to a
flabbergasted audience: "What was Elvis Presley's worst ever release? — The ejaculation that produced Lisa Marie."