As the credits rolled in a movie theater a few nights ago, my wife, Kathy, said something like, “That was awesome. I want to see it again.”
I don’t believe we’ve seen the same movie more than once in a theater since “Titanic” in 1997. But I was thinking along the same lines, that this one was at least in my top 10 of all time.
Of course, not everybody would agree, but director Baz Luhrmann’s take on the life of Elvis Presley – simply called “Elvis” – presents the music superstar in a way that touched us deeply, from his ecstatic rock ‘n’ roll beginnings in the 1950s to his tragic death in 1977. Thirty-year-old Austin Butler captures the essence of Elvis, from the voice to the moves to the charisma, even if he isn’t a wax-figure lookalike. He and Tom Hanks, who plays Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker in a subtly threatening manner, both should win Oscars.
The story exaggerates some facts, such as how a proposed Christmas TV special turned into the 1968 “Comeback Special” that returned Elvis to pop culture relevancy and a consequential conversation by Parker and his protege who make a deal on top of a carnival Ferris wheel. But it’s a movie, and the essential truth of what happened is there.
Butler’s portrayal gives longtime fans and young newcomers a realistic idea of what Elvis’s appeal was to audiences, especially to women. But the actor also takes us into the mind and soul of a human being who had to deal with a conniving manager, a broken marriage and increasing loneliness at the top. Elvis was no saint and led a wild life at times. Abuse of drugs had to have been a factor in his death by heart attack. But his faith in God continually showed up in his life, if not in this film.
“Elvis” begins with a boy in the rural South, watching black blues musicians in a shanty town and peeking into a revival tent at a charismatic church service that Luhrmann turns into a dreamlike, euphoric experience that sweeps Elvis up toward the sky.
It’s well-known that gospel music was one of the staples in Elvis’s journey from childhood to his death at age 42. This movie only touches on that key part of his life, but it isn’t overlooked.
In Pastor Greg Laurie’s new book, “Lennon, Dylan, Alice, & Jesus: The Spiritual Biography of Rock and Roll,” Elvis is quoted about an early church incident: “My mother and dad both loved to sing. They tell me when I was three or four years old, I got away from them and walked in front of the choir, and I was beating time.”
One of his first ambitions was to be a gospel singer, and according to Laurie, soon after Elvis became a national star, he sang “Peace in the Valley” on the “The Ed Sullivan Show” because it was one of his mother’s favorite hymns . Elvis’s friend Jerry Schilling is quoted as saying, “Anytime Elvis was going through a really rough time, he always retreated to gospel music.”
Laurie’s book says the singer’s ex-wife, Priscilla, tabbed Elvis’s “go-to” song as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which includes the lyrics, “I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn through the storm ; Lead me on to the light, take me home, precious Lord.”
I’ve seen video of Elvis singing gospel songs informally with his backup singers, JD Sumner and the Stamps. He looks happy and joyful. Laurie points out that in 1967, the “Summer of Love” dominated by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, Elvis released a gospel album, “How Great Thou Art.”
“He never lost sight of his Savior, but he did lose sight of himself, courtesy of an addiction to pills that turned him into a caricature of himself,” Laurie wrote.
Believe it or not, I saw Elvis in person. It was Nov. 8, 1972, at Lubbock Memorial Coliseum. I was there with my brother, David, and friend, Ted. My younger sister, Sheri, was 15 and invited to go with hometown friends, but Mom wouldn’t let her. Neither my brother nor I had been especially interested in Elvis, but I suppose we bought the $5 tickets because he was such a big name. That night changed our tunes.
Elvis was touring the country while he wasn’t playing at the Las Vegas Hilton, previously the International Hotel. He had not gained the weight that he would later, but he was in his white jumpsuit period. We were in nosebleed seats, but that concert transformed our opinions.
My brother and I both were blown away with the range of Elvis’s voice, his stage presence and the reaction of fans of all ages, especially women, some of whom he threw multiple scarves to. We entered the venue as music fans; we left as Elvis fans.
I don’t remember any gospel tunes in the concert, but that voice and the heart that came with it gave songs such as “The Impossible Dream” and “American Trilogy” the weight of spirituality.
After Elvis sang the words, “I can’t help falling in love with you,” for the last time, the crowd of 10,000 pleaded for an encore – only to hear the familiar, “Elvis has left the building.”
Laurie tells a story in his book about a woman who approached Elvis after a Las Vegas show and offered him a pillow with a crown on it. “It’s for you,” she said. “You’re the king.”
Taking her hand, Elvis reportedly said, “No, honey, there is only one King, and His name is Jesus Christ. I’m just a singer.”
But what a singer.
Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016 and has written for the Faith section since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for other recent columns.