What makes a star? To my mind, it’s someone who you may never have heard of. Never have even seen before. Yet no matter your age, 5 or 95, upon the first time seeing them perform, something about them pulls you in. An ineffable magnetism. And you’re a goner. A fan for life.
This will be dating me for sure, but that happened to me at the age of 5. Family and visiting relatives were gathered around the television on Sunday night, about to witness some singer on the Ed Sullivan Show who apparently was taking the country by storm. Ed introduces the “young man,” the crowd starts screaming, and from the moment Elvis appeared on screen (shown only from his waist up), I forgot myself. Forgot any inhibitions I may have harbored. I sprung up and started to dance. Wildly. Frenetically. “Dance, Laura, dance!” my family egged on. My parents bought me the 45 vinyl of “Love Me Tender,” which on my little red record player, I played over and over and over again. Even more times than “Teddy Bear Picnic.”
Elvis. Never before or ever since has anyone sounded like him. Moved like him. Looked like him. And let’s face it. Elvis exuded pure, raw sexuality that could be felt whether you stood next to him, saw him approaching from blocks away, or just stared at him in a photograph, mesmerized. He had “the kavorka.” (Seinfeld fans, you know what I’m talking about. Google it if you don't.)
I remember Elvis’s face appearing in full color on the cover of one of the Sunday supplements of the newspaper. His image filled the entire page. I leaned in close, able to make out the pores on his inimitably sculpted cheeks. I leaned even closer to kiss it, inhaling the scent of the paper. An intoxicating scent that still has the power to make me feel lovesick at its very recollection.
So it was with those memories buried deep in my subconscious and out of curiosity that I decided to rent the recently heralded “Elvis,” a movie directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Austin Butler in the title role, and Tom Hanks as the infamous Colonel Parker. Tom, to his great credit, disappeared in a character that bordered on the villainous. But Austin.
Going in, I had my doubts. Would I be convinced that he was Elvis? It’s always difficult when an actor takes on the role of a cultural icon. You’re always comparing them to the original. No one, no matter how great the actress, can quite capture the incandescence of Marilyn. But as for Elvis, who I’ll be bold and say that he is indisputably the biggest cultural icon this country – and the world has ever seen – how do you even dare approach playing such a man? But after seeing the movie, I couldn’t stop thinking of it. Dreaming of it. While not quite the same in looks (who is?), still, I was overcome. Austin captured the embodiment of Elvis, to the point of unearthing emotions in me that have laid dormant for decades.
Among all the impressions that I am left with from this movie, one thing stuck out and has stayed with me: That, while Elvis’s life was so transformative for music, for our culture, uplifting and inspiring millions upon millions worldwide, in the end became so tragic. For if there is one thing that is unforgivable in my book, it’s to hamstring the creative spirit. As what the Colonel tried desperately to do to Elvis.
At the start of their relationship, the Colonel promised Elvis he will make him fly. At that notion, a smile spread across Elvis’s lips. He felt that he found someone who understood him and could take him to that next level. Yes. He was meant to and ready to fly. So while it was the Colonel who put Elvis not just on the map, but had the promotional prowess to put his image on every object imaginable, from bed sheets to bobbleheads, it was the ultimate irony when the Colonel, after initial tremendous success, tried unrelentingly, selfishly, to turn Elvis into something he absolutely. was. not. It was like binding the wings of an eagle.
It is almost quaint to think how in the 1950’s, Elvis’s physical gyrations were considered beyond the pale. Far too vulgar for the delicate sensibilities of the American audience. Television execs were adamant. They wanted him to stop moving. Cold. Elvis’s response: “When I sing, I have to move.” It was that basic. That inbred. He had to move. That’s how I felt when he sang. I and millions of others. Seeing Elvis’s story unfold in the movie, it became clear how that instinctive “motion seed” was planted.
When he was a kid, growing up in the downtrodden town of Tupelo, Mississippi, he’d be lured by the sounds of black revival meetings emanating from the distance. The clear, powerful voices. The contagious beat. Gospel music. He’d scurry off full speed to peek into the tents, where he spied pastor and parishioners singing full-throated to the rafters, gyrating, quivering, overcome with a spirituality that seemed to overtake every fiber of their being. Enthralled, the young Elvis couldn’t hold back. Something within him swept him into the tent, into the crowd where churchgoers swooped him up and supported him in a circle of loving arms. In the throes of what could only be described as a holy spirit, the energy, the music overtook him. Together, they all shook, rattled and rolled.
And isn’t that what we all do when we watch or listen to Elvis? In the movie, as the camera panned his audiences, everyone seemed almost possessed. Meek-looking women in babushkas or with hair in tight curls would shoot up from their seats, screaming uncontrollably. Tears streamed down faces. Arms were outstretched across the stage, hoping to touch his shoe, his pant cuff. Any part of him just to satisfy what their hearts cried out for. It dawned on me: His concerts weren’t concerts. They were revival meetings, rock ‘n’ roll style.
Elvis was the first to claim that he was not the inventor of rock. He gave all credit to its roots: the black gospel and blues singers that came before him or were his contemporaries, inspired by the likes of B.B. King. Little Richard. Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Big Mama Thornton. Into the mix of influences, add Jimmie Rodgers (“The Father of Country Music”) and “The King of Cool,” Dean Martin. Elvis absorbed the genres, and imbuing them with his own unique soul, his moves, his voice, his looks, was able to spread the gospel of rock all across the South. Then the North. Then the world, crashing through all barriers of race, religion, age, gender, culture. Elvis was the right messenger at the right time.
I could go on. About the roller coaster ride that was Elvis’s career. The good movies. The bad. The Vegas extravaganzas and television specials that resurrected his career. But through much of it, it became a tug-of-war between what Elvis and what the Colonel wanted. Elvis, in his heart, knew who he was and where he was meant to be. More than anything, he was born to perform. To feel that exalted love and electrifying energy with live audiences not just in the U.S., but across the world. Yet he never toured outside the country. The Colonel nixed it.
Imagine. A superstar known the world over who never got the opportunity to know that world. I think of how he would have thrilled them in England. Germany. France. Singapore. Australia. Oh, what they all missed!
At first it was the banning of his movements. He broke through. Then it was about the clothes he wore. He broke through again. And finally, it was the stifling of his greater ambitions, of further fulfilling his true self. Once more, his wings were bound. It was asphyxiating.
A lesson for us all. Never let anyone stop you, no matter how good you think their intentions may be. Follow your own heart, your own dreams, your own true self.
Never, ever let anyone stop you from soaring. Like an eagle.
-- Laura Stigler
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