Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Elvis Presley: A Complicated King Vol. I

The Graceland mansion, Elvis Presley's iconic home in Memphis, was not the tacky tourist trap I expected when I visited the summer of 2015 (see  Digging My Southern Roots....Memphis). In fact, the sheer volume of artifacts -- videos, film, posters, costumes, gold records, awards, airplanes, and a drive-in theater circled by Elvis' cars -- was daunting.

I wanted to know more. How did one human being create so much in such a short life? How did the man anointed the King of Rock 'n' Roll rise to the unprecedented fame, fortune and popularity he enjoyed? What was his family like? How did he develop his unique style of music to produce enough gold records to line both walls of a former handball court? How did he meet Priscilla and what was their marriage like? And finally, what led to his untimely death at the age of 42?

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, was published in 1995 to much critical acclaim as the first of a two-volume set considered the quintessential Elvis biography. Author Peter Guralnick offers a richly detailed early history of a very nervous, shy boy who fidgeted constantly and was petrified when he performed. Guralnick's website displays an impressive collection of books he's written on the music and artists Elvis loved -- soul, country, rhythm and blues, etc., to suggest an expert whose knowledge runs deep. A thick section of references at the end of both volumes attests to ten years of meticulous research to locate and review video, film, articles, documents and letters, and to interview dozens of people who knew Elvis. In the pages of the first volume, the nervous boy grows into a brilliant, gifted performer with a heart to match. Early signs of an addictive personality appear as well.

As a toddler in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis traveled with his mom several hours by train to visit his father in prison. Dad Vernon was reportedly framed for a blue collar crime because someone had it in for him. When he returned home after a couple of years, life in Tupelo was simple with Gladys and Elvis, but didn't offer much more than menial jobs and some extended family, many living in poverty. The parents were a devoted couple and Elvis was their world, so when he came in fifth in a singing contest at the county fair, they bought him a guitar for his birthday. Two uncles and a pastor taught him to play and Elvis took the guitar to school every day to sing in the cafeteria. He was considered a strange kid, a loner.

When he was 13, the family moved to Memphis, where they lived in short-term rentals until they qualified for government-subsidized housing. It was a godsend. Vernon had ongoing back problems and couldn't work so Gladys became the bread winner, finding small jobs to support the family. During times like these, when his parents could barely make ends meet, Elvis promised his mother he'd buy her a house someday.

The Presleys were considered odd by people who remembered them early on. Very tight-knit, they mostly kept to themselves, except for the occasional visit with family or when a neighbor befriended Gladys, who was well-liked by those who got to know her. Sundays found the three of them at black churches soaking up the gospel music of choirs and the harmonies of quartets. Throughout his life, Elvis would turn to gospel music for peace and solace. He'd play the piano and sing gospel tunes for friends at home, with other artists at the end of a recording session, or with cast and crew at the close of a day of filming.

In high school, Elvis' knowledge of music grew to include all the popular genres and artists in Memphis and beyond, i.e., gospel, country, blues, hillbilly, and western swing. He listened to the radio and played records constantly, memorizing favorites so he could sing and play them by ear for his parents. The obsession with music was always there. Later, in the recording studio, Elvis would seek perfection and know exactly what he wanted. He would demand no less from his musicians.

At school he was still an outsider, wearing clothes influenced by the black church singers and by the suits in shop windows on Beale Street where jazz and blues musicians entertained. Brightly colored bolero jackets with dark pants and a stripe down the side, along with long sideburns and a poufy hairstyle, set him apart from classmates. But his first love, Dixie, could see past the exotic outfits and hairdos. She encouraged him to sing at night in the courtyard of the apartment complex. Painfully shy and emotionally raw, he eventually went outside where neighbors gathered in the evening. After dark, he'd strum and sing with her by his side for support. Before long, he was performing at local gatherings and starting to enjoy the attention that came his way.

After he graduated high school and worked for a local electric company, Elvis decided to record a song for his mother, with whom he shared an unusually close relationship and talked baby talk. Sun Records in Memphis was a place where you could pay for a recording session and walk away with your own vinyl record. The owner, Sam Phillips, was unimpressed with Elvis' guitar and vocal talent. Afterward, Elvis stopped by Sun weekly to ask Sam's partner, Marion Keisker, the nice lady at the front desk, if anyone needed a singer or guitar player. He was so awkward that she felt sorry for him and suggested Sam give him another chance. After a couple of failed auditions, Elvis was invited to come in for a gig with two other musicians. Again, he was so jittery, he couldn't sit still and didn't sing or play with any energy. Sam called it quits and suggested they try again the next day. Before the musicians left, they joked around and jammed with Elvis, who was completely relaxed now and cut loose. Within minutes, Sam took notice from the recording booth. For the first time, he got a sense of the boy's unique style of musical talent. This was exactly why he opened Sun Records -- to discover unheard Southern voices with original style and appeal. After dozens of takes the next few days, Elvis recorded his first hit, "That's Alright, Mama," with"Blue Moon Over Kentucky" on the flip side. It was an instant success on the radio in Memphis and throughout the South. The Sun website describes Sam Phillips' response to Elvis' potential:

Then in 1954 Sam found Elvis Presley, an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. 

More recordings and car tours were booked in the South and beyond, with artists like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Hank Snow sharing the stage with Elvis, who shook and jerked when he sang because he was still so anxious, as demonstrated in an early video, 1958 That's All Right Mama.

Tom Parker, a former circus barker turned agent, lost Eddy Arnold as a client and approached Elvis with an offer to represent him. They struck a deal and TV appearances on the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows followed, as did controversies about his stage gyrations, considered too sexually suggestive for family viewing.

The criticism confused Elvis and fueled his insecurities. He'd learned how to tease and flirt with live audiences, gifting scarves to screaming, clinging girls who pushed their way to the stage footlights, but he still worried whether they really liked him or not. The women he met on the road were a balm for the anxieties, especially ones who slept with him, with or without sex. Raised very much a mana's boy, he yearned for the comfort and cuddling they provided. Elvis was a gentleman in a 1950s culture that frowned on premarital sex and was likely to withhold sex if he respected the girl or thought she was too young, telling her she needed to wait until "the time was right." Yet, he had no problem lavishing expensive gifts on man of the women and other people he met along the way.

In the early days, Dixie sat at home with Gladys, Vernon and Grandma, who lived with them, all waiting by the phone for the nightly call from Elvis. Ever earnest, polite, and devoted, he was torn about his future with Dixie, who came to realize Elvis was no longer hers. He belonged to the fans, and to women like the movie star Ann Margaret, who made a film with Elvis and was completely taken by his wholesome charm and talent.

Success continued to skyrocket under "Colonel" Tom Parker (self-appointed title). Thanks to soaring record sales, Graceland was purchased as a home for his parents and Elvis. RCA promoted his records and Hollywood beckoned with movie deals. The handsome country boy from Tennessee disarmed and charmed them all. He was living a golden life and supporting several guys from Memphis who traveled with him.

But Uncle Sam called and the explosive success of the first four years was suddenly put on hold. Elvis was committed to serving his country and reported for basic training in Arkansas. Before he finished, an alarming call came for him. Elvis' mother was diagnosed with hepatitis and hospitalized in Memphis. He rushed home and a couple of days later, as he stood at her bedside, Gladys died from heart failure.

By the end of the first volume, Elvis' career is on hold and he's buried his mother. With immediate departure for active duty assignment in Germany, he had no time to truly grieve for his beloved Mommy. Her death only added to the lingering loss he felt for a twin brother who died at birth. At the age of twenty-three, Elvis' obligations towered over him. The grief wass shoved into a corner and insecurities hovered. He told friends he wasn't at all sure he'd have a career when he returned.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Sunday, February 26, 4 pm PT

The Oscars are about to screen, so it's time to highlight some of my favorite movies, actors and even a couple of sleepers from 2016.

 News, celebs and more:  http://oscar.go.com
Choose your picks: http://oscar.go.com/nominees

MY PERSONAL FAVORITES (not up for Oscars)

Queen of Katwe with Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo is my top pick for movie of the year. It's the story of a young girl living with her mother and brothers in a dirt shack in Uganda who learns to play chess and wins the African continent championship. Medina Nalwanga's portrayal of the main character, Phiona Mutesi, is honest and earnest, but also vulnerable and conflicted. Phiona sells food to neighbors to help her single mom make ends meet, but she's also drawn to the school where boys her age are reading books and learning to play chess. Portrayed by Oyelowo, the teacher guides Phiona and encourages her reluctant mother, embodied by Nyong'o, to support Phiona. As a result, she joins the ranks of privileged youth who claim top prizes at chess competitions in her native country and Africa. This is a heroic story with grit, intelligence and tenderness that illuminates the role an adult can play in a child's life, to propel them to believe in themselves, overcome obstacles, and reach for the stars. The film feels like another indie achievement, but it's a Disney jewel based on a true story which has been featured on network news shows.

Sing Street is the delightful account of a coming-of-age boy in Dublin who's forced to attend a new school where he's an outcast struggling to fit in somewhere and escape the stress of a troubled home life. When a beautiful older girl catches his eye on the walk home from school, he stops to talk and spins a tall tale about his nonexistent band to impress her. Enthusiastic, she tells him she's a model and sings as well, which sends him on a frantic chase to pull together a band with a couple of friends and produce a music video to feature her. It's a sweet caper with youthful longing and fantasies, which makes for humorous storytelling and predicaments. You can't help but root for the young chap who's willing to do whatever it takes to win the more mature girl's love and sail away with her into the sunset.


Fences  -- The producers of this film have taken full-page, foldout photo ads in the Sunday NYT, and I do mean BIG, for framing and hanging on a wall. The movie feels like a play, which is its original format. Written by Langford Wilson, the story is set in an urban Philadelphia neighborhood like the one where he grew up. Denzel Washington produced, directed, and starred in a stage production before he did the same for the film. Intense dialogue and the cultural backdrop serve as reminders of the continuing plight of African Americans and others caught in cyles of racism, ignorance and urban decay for a disturbing, yet unforgettable character-driven story. Best actor nominee Denzel Washington and supporting actress nominee Viola Davis deliver riveting performances.

Hidden Figures  -- Based on a true story, this movie is about the talented black women who contribute their substantial technical skills to the fledgling U.S. space program and are forced to negotiate their way through the unwelcoming white male culture. BRAVO to Octavia Spencer (supporting actress nominee) in the role of Dorothy Vaughan, who forged a legendary career as an IBM supervisor at NASA, and to Taraji P. Hensen and Janelle Monae for their portrayals of the other women who helped break through racial and workplace barriers at NASA to prove they could solve engineering problems as well as their male colleagues.

La La Land -- The over-the-top opening scene of this movie is perhaps my very favorite ever, with a giant dose of pizazz to suggest the audience is in for the ride of their moviegoing lives. From beginning to ending, this is a romantic love letter to LA with picturesque setttings and dazzling song and dance numbers that make for irresistible cinema. The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone produces magical  performances reminiscent of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films to offer a welcome break from everyday life and headlines. I'm betting the Oscar could go home with the young producer who created a bit of Hollywood stardust with La La Land.

Lion -- From a remote village in India to a comfortable home with devoted parents in Australia, this is the story of a poor boy orphaned by bizarre circumstances, but driven by youthful memories to search for his original family and the place where he was born. The photography and performances feel so authentic it's easy to imagine you're watching a documentary. While the true story belongs to the people who lived it, a fine cast delivers exquisite performances to honor their journey. Sunny Pawar, an unknown child actor, is so completely mesmerizing as Young Saroo that he seems to be plucked from the village in the movie. Dev Patel (nominated for supporting actor) plays older Saroo, and Nicole Kidman (nominated for supporting actress) is Sue Brierley, the adoptive mother.

Manchester By the Sea  -- Casey Afflek delivers a quiet, intense performance of a man in grief, but it takes too long to figure this out. The cinematography captures serene New England landscapes and seascapes that reinforce the somber tone of the story, which unwinds in backflashes and takes us down roads unexpected. Lucas Hedges (supporting actor nominee), in the role of Affleck's nephew, and Michelle Williams (supporting actress nominee), in the role of his ex-wife, breathe both humor and pathos into the sad saga, which Affleck owns. A dark story, the impact is undeniable as real life tragedies go.

Moonlight -- A birdseye view into the crime-riddled projects of Miami reveals how the youngest of victims fares from childhood through adolescence and adulthood. We follow an innocent boy being reared by a drug-addicted mom playeed by Naomie Harris (supporting actress nominee) and  mentored by her drug dealer in a role brought to life by Mahershala Ali (supporting actor nominee). Three actors portray the boy, teen and man, to show him fighting his way through predictable situations until fortune leads him to follow in the footsteps of the druglord, which is just about all he's ever known. But salvation knocks at his door when the love and affection shown by a schoolmate years before leads to a search for the same man, now working as a cook in another town. The sensitive reunion blossoms with hope at the end of the film for a character with remnants of childhood innocence still residing in secret cracks beneath the facade of gold-filled teeth.

Other Contenders: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, and Hell or High Water


Ruth Negga/Loving -- This is a heart-rendering account of Southern bigotry when a white man marries a black woman and they are rejected by their neighbors and the law, at least until a compassionate attorney comes forward to plead their case in court. Based on a true story, the poignant performance is understated but heartfelt, complementing a similar portrayal of the husband.

Natalie Portman/Jackie -- Like a time capsule, the film takes us back to a period in our nation's history when a youthful president is tragically stricken down, forever lost to his country, his wife and his family. Natalie Portman transforms herself to convey the wispy voice and measured delivery of Jackie Kennedy, whose shock, grief and intensity after her husband's death reveal a woman determined to mold his legacy. We watch as she plans the events and negotiates the steps with Bobby Kennedy and others, to ensure every detail leading up to and through the funeral is presented as she wishes, for all the world to see, and more important, remember. Portman is nominated for a precise, calculated perfomance.

Emma Stone/La La Land -- I loved the film, the boy-meets-girl story and the performances. Emma Stone jumps leaps and bounds beyond Birdman and other roles to portray a youthful, vulnerable character who discovers and embraces her talents in a fiercely competitive Hollywood environment. Ultimately, she leaves the love of her youthful longing to settle into a more mature relationship, but not without wistful feelings for the past. Oscar worthy on all counts.

Other Contenders: Isabelle Huppert/Elle and Meryl Streep/Florence Foster Jenkins


Casey Affleck/Manchester By the Sea -- The character played by Casey Affleck is holding himself together after a tragic loss, but we don't learn about his backstory until well into the film. The restrained performance makes more sense when the history comes to the forefront. A victim of grief and loss, Affleck begs for the audience's sympathy, but it's his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams, who displays the emotions he's unable to express and becomes the more sympathetic character.

Ryan Gosling/La La Land -- Emma Stone's romantic interest is the dashing, winsome character portrayed by Gosling, who offers a worthy match to her performance, especially when he takes a seat at the piano. But it's Emma Stone who truly steals the show.

Denzel Washington/Fences -- The couple in this play by Langford Wilson that's turned into a movie by Denzel Washington (director/actor) is caught in a web of complications from daily struggles in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia. He's the bombastic husband working as a garbage collector who lost out on a career as a baseball player, and she's the one who gets the brunt of his disappointments until their son is old enough to serve as the target. The grit and anger of Denzel's character may be authentic, but he's hard to take. Viola Davis (supporting actress nominee) is the loyal but suffering wife who plays referee between father and son. I give her my vote, but find it hard to cheer for the mean guy.

Other Contenders: Andrew Garfield/Hacksaw Ridge and Viggo Mortenson/Captain Fantastic