One of my earliest childhood memories was watching Elvis Presley sing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the fall of 1956.
I sat in front of the family black-and-white TV in my little red metal rocking chair; when Elvis started singing, I screamed and screamed along with all the other girls in the audience. Annoyed, Dad turned off the TV.
I was three years old.
Now you would probably expect me to say I was a huge Elvis fan from that moment forward. Not so. For me, rock and roll has always, will always, be The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney.
But nearly 63 years since I first saw him on TV, I think I finally understand the enormity of what Elvis was to the American way of life for so many years.
I have watched other Elvis biopics before. But Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Elvis” manages to encapsulate the splendor, the glory and the pathos of Elvis’s life, giving Elvis the man moments of dignity of which the general public may not have been aware.
It also made stunningly clear the villainy of Colonel Tom Parker, the man who used and abused Presley to an early death. The only other man I have found this completely loathsome in my life is Donald Trump. But more on that later.
In an article for “Wide Open Country,” writer Emily Mack has this to say about Elvis’s early impact in the 1950s:
“America was ready for Elvis. His career took off during a decade that’s now synonymous with the rise of the American teenager. Following World War II, the baby boom was in full swing, schools were integrating, and white flight was flooding the suburbs. The image of the nuclear family was born, and with it, a recognition for that tricky adolescent unit: the teenager. Experiencing comfortable middle-class wealth for the first time, many families spent disposable income on televisions, kitchen appliances, and automobiles. Teenagers started to drive their own cars. And when teenagers drive their own cars, they play their own music. That’s where Elvis came in.”
Elvis brought them a distinctly different sound that most had never before heard. “Borrowing heavily from gospel, country, and African-American blues artists, Elvis occupied a space between genres that eventually came to be known as… rock ‘n’ roll. Straddling different categories and transcending class, the quirky rock sound had wide appeal. Elvis’s unusual twang and moaning voice tugged on new listeners’ ears. What is he even saying? Many people wondered. But the unique sound was here to stay,” Mack writes.
Of course, conservatives would try to ban Elvis and his gyrating performances for indecency and corruption of the morals of young people. If this sounds familiar, you need only look to the state of Florida with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on LGBTQIA+ teens, and book bans in nearly every Red state school library. Especially “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe.
But just how did Elvis make it onto Ed Sullivan’s show that fall of 1956?
Enter Colonel Tom Parker, born in the Netherlands in 1909 as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk.
Most Elvis biopics focus on his recording contract with Sun Records, a small recording studio in Memphis. But Luhrmann focuses on the Mephistopheles that was Parker. In fact, with much narration by Parker (played by the ever outstanding Tom Hanks), this movie is as much about Parker as it is about Elvis.
The film literally initially has Parker as carnival barker cum impresario cum strong father-figure to Elvis. In fact, Parker draws Elvis into his devil’s pact in the movie at the top of a Ferris wheel ride that Parker’s literal command has the power to stop. It is a gesture of the hand, subtle, but very effective.
By the time Elvis steps off the carnival ride, Parker will own half of all the money Elvis makes for the rest of Elvis’s life. Elvis will have only half his soul left too; Parker will eventually drain that from him as well.
It isn’t that Elvis doesn’t try from time to time to exert his own moral code against Parker’s demands. He does so early on when Elvis — at an Alabama concert in Lurhmann’s telling — sings a song called “Trouble.” This was not the “clean” performance Parker had pledged to local leaders but a gyrating display that ends with Elvis being hauled off by police and jailed.
The upshot in Luhrmann’s telling: Parker arranges for Elvis’s draft notice and will use the young man’s soldiering days in Germany to rebrand Elvis as a clean cut movie star when he returns home.
The next time Elvis defies Parker, it is after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. He is supposed to do a traditional Christmas special per a contract Parker has arranged.
Instead he does his televised and minimalistically staged “Elvis” special, which sees both a return to Elvis at his roots and a more socially conscious man who sings “If I Can Dream” rather than the Christmas song Parker has promised advertisers. And never once does Elvis don the Christmas sweater Parker is also hawking.
Finally, just as Elvis tries to part with Parker so he can pursue a world concert tour, Parker reels him into a deal that keeps Elvis trapped in a Las Vegas residency for the rest of his career. Parker isn’t just trying to keep Elvis from touring under other producers. He is also trying to cover massive gambling debts he owes at the International Hotel.
Elvis ends up losing his wife and child as he uses more and more drugs to keep up the grueling schedule of his Las Vegas performances with which Parker finally breaks his spirit.
Parker at movie’s end blames the overwhelming love of Elvis’s fans and Elvis’s need for it as the cause of the singer’s death. But it was really Parker’s lies, manipulation and lack of morality that killed Elvis, in my opinion. All of that, and his inability to care about anyone else because all of life to him was a merchandising opportunity. Nothing more. Nothing less.
And here is where I draw the analogy to Trump, a man to whom it is all about image, marketing and branding — even the presidency of the United States.
Trump has put this country through so much in the past seven years, from his terrible characterization of Hispanics in 2015, through the Mueller investigation, the January 6 insurrection and now his violation of the Presidential Records Act and the 10,000 documents — many containing our most highly classified secrets — found by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago two years after Trump lost the presidency. Documents he had no right to take. Documents which he must have had an intention to exploit.
Because those papers and our country are to Trump what Elvis was to Parker: a treasure which has as its sole purpose yielding wealth with every manipulative turn.
As Parker did Elvis, I am so afraid Trump will eventually break this nation and its democratic heart will die, worn out from the never-ending hamster wheel Trump has us on at his deceptive pleasure. And still the MAGAs will never know how manipulated they have been by yet another carnival barker selling them dreams that will never come true.
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