Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Review Elvis Movie: Fact Vs. Fiction

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘ELVIS’ movie put a bright multicolored spotlight on Elvis Presley. It drew many people to the cinema and digital platforms, and for many younger viewers, this was probably their first “in-depth” introduction to the man and legacy of Elvis Presley. 
Luhrmann’s movie was not a biopic as we know it from the biopics on Freddy Mercury, Elton John, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner, telling a real person's life's story. Luhrmann used Elvis Presley’s life and relation with his manager Colonel Tom Parker, as a colorful canvas to paint how America changed from the fifties to the seventies in the last century. So the movie is about Elvis, and at the same time, it's not.
And now, one year after the movie’s release, Trina Young published her book ‘Fact vs. Fiction in the 2022 ELVIS Movie’ helping us to distinguish what happened on screen and in real life. 
The book is a 211-page black and white paperback. The design is simple; the gold glitters are a nice nod to the glamour of Baz’ movie, inside the it is primarily a text-book with a small picture section. 

The author presented the book as an “unauthorized analysis” and the pictures reflect that. Although understandable, that is a pity for a book like this which compares facts and fiction. You want to see Baz Luhrman's take on the events and our man next to the real / original events. Especially as Catherine Walker and her team did such a great job recreating the Elvis world from the fifties, sixties and seventies. But this would have meant that Warner Bros. had to be involved, which would ultimately affect the unbiased analysis Young presents us. 
Young has a captivating writing style which takes the readers by the hand, helping them to distinguish Elvis’ reality and Baz Luhrmann’s artistic license in a pleasant and entertaining way. 
In an interview with Piers Beagley for the >>> Elvis Information Network (click to read the complete interview), Young explained her reason for writing the book: “I believe most people understand that artistic license is necessary in a film to tell a person's life story in under 3 hours … it is not the fact that certain events or people in Presley's life were left out of the film ... the issue for me is how significant are the things that were left out and how do they change the perception of Presley's history.”
To help the readers tell the difference between facts and fiction, Young structured the book and the way she presents the facts and fiction nicely. She sets the scene for her analysis with three introductory chapters painting the backstory, the filming and the reception of the ‘ELVIS’ movie. 

The analysis itself comprises around two-thirds of the book, which closes with a final chapter reflecting on the influence of the film, portrayals of Elvis and Colonel Parker, the many awards won and more. I learned that the involvement of Joel Weinshanker and the Authentic brands Group was much bigger than that of the Presley family member, who in my opinion, were not entirely honest in their communication about their involvement in this project.
For the analysis itself Young developed a format: each scene is given a “truth” score regarding historical accuracy on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most truthful). Each score is based on an average of three factors: correct place, correct time, and correct storyline. 
The scenes were divided in a way that represents a different historical fact relating to Presley’s life. For this analysis, Young divided the movie into 86 scenes, each with a timestamp so the reader can easily find the scene in the movie. 

Looking at the bibliography Young did not use the original script as a basis, but the identified scenes work well, also due to the added time-stamp. 
This format works well for a reference book like this one, although I would have made each scene stand out in the text for easy access. Following the rating of each scene, Young presents us “facts vs. fiction” in an entertaining and insightful narrative, not leaving out “1” ratings when something didn’t happen (as interpreted by Luhrmann). What he often did was combine certain real-life events into one scene. 

A good example is the iconic scene of the riot at Elvis’ 1956 Russwood Park show. 

Scene 37 (50:20) - Elvis performs defiantly at Russwood Park in Memphis. (Austin Butler is singing in this scene). Truth score: 8.5/10

Place (10/10): Elvis performed at Russwood Park a few days after The Steve Allen show.

Time (10/10): The concert at Russwood Park in Memphis took place on July 4, 1956.

Storyline (5.5/10): The Russwood Park show was actually a benefit for two local charities: the Memphis Press-Scimitar's Cynthia Milk Fund which provided baby formula for local families in need, and also the Variety Club’s Hospital for Convalescent Children who have had rheumatic fever. In real life, Presley appeared on Wink Martindale’s Dance Party show a few weeks prior along with Dewey Phillips stating that he would donate his 14-diamond initial ring (worth US$600 at the time) for a door prize at the show. 

While the scene fits perfectly in the flow of the story Luhrmann presents to us - the song choice enforces the film’s narrative that Elvis was rebelling against society and Colonel Parker - it never happened. 
Yes there was a show in 1956 at Russwood Park, but no, he did not sing ‘Trouble’, that song wasn’t recorded yet by Elvis, but was the opener for the 1968 ‘NBC TV Show, known as the ’68 Comeback Special’). 
Yes, Elvis gave some wild performances and officials told both him and Parker to clean up the act and “tone down his suggestive body movement”. But the wild performance with Elvis rolling around on the stage with the RCA Nipper dog actually took place on October 28, 1957 at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. 
The only chaos was the girls rushing the stage when Elvis appeared. The reference to the riots may be to a 1956 show at Gator Bowl Baseball Park in Jacksonville where Elvis teased the screaming girls by saying he'd "see them backstage after the show," prompting a mad rush toward the stage and a riot that spilled into the streets. A group cornered the singer in his dressing room and tore his clothes off in their competition to grab a souvenir. Elvis had to be rescued by police from what has become known as the first Presley riot.

Besides correcting the dates and locations, the author goes further to tell the complete story. As discussed in the author’s first book, ‘Elvis - Behind The Legend', Presley never set out to be a rebellious rock and roll singer. His original goal was to be part of a gospel quartet, and when that didn’t work out, he wanted to sing ballads like Dean Martin. The Rock and Roll thing literally happened by accident that night at Sun Studio. As Elvis said, they “just stumbled upon it”. 

But Elvis ended up representing the rebellious persona of rock and roll music in the way he wore his hair, the way he dressed, the way he moved onstage, and the fact that he often chose to sing music by Black artists.  

This example illustrates what the book is all about. I’ll leave it at just one example, as I “don’t want to spoil the ending”. 

Reading a book like this, and looking at the work and style of this director you know beforehand that facts and fiction won’t match. But that’s not a problem when you look at the bigger picture and the story the director wants to tell. You can’t put a complete life, especially one as rich as Elvis’, in 2 hours and 39 minutes of screen time without making some shortcuts or leaving certain events and historical and contemporary figures out. Like stated above, the question is  how significant are the things that were left out and how do they change the perception of Presley's history. Luhrmann said in an interview “Elvis was not just another rock star. The things that happened in such a short lifetime are almost unimaginable”. 
I’d like to add that he was the first rock star, so he - and his manager and other people involved - had to discover and do everything for the first time. So for us it is easy to look back and have an opinion. 
I can only applaud Trina Young for the tremendous research that must have gone into this analysis. With over 8o scenes to analyze, Young must have covered a lot of ground identifying facts and fiction in the movie and checking the facts through research. 
The bibliography, with biographers like Guralnick, Hanson, Hopkins, Jorgensen , Osborne,  Nash and Vellenga but also familiar names like Binder, Esposito, Klein, Lacker, Presley, Schilling, Smith and West, illustrate some of the sources used. So we know we’re good there. What made this book very readable for me was the inclusion of the many quotes from the people who either worked on the movie, or were present when the events took place in the fifties, sixties or seventies. 
Trina Young’s fourth Elvis book is an interesting analysis of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘ELVIS’ movie. The book is well written, thoroughly researched and puts the record straight on the Elvis Presley story, without putting the movie down. 
The book opens a new world for moviegoers wanting to know more about Elvis, and serves as a factchecker for all the fans, me included, who were taken in by the movie and the artistic license Luhrmann and his team allowed themselves for their ballroom blitz take of Elvis Presley’s life (as a canvas for a  changing America in the 50’s, 60’s and ‘70’s) wanting to remember what really happened.

The book is also available from >>> Trina Young's website.