Spoiler alert! The following discusses plot points from the new “Elvis” movie and the real life of Elvis Presley. Stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know.
The epic biopic “Elvis” covers a lot of ground – 42 years, to be precise – from the iconic singer’s birth until his death in 1977.
Given the inevitable event compression required of any movie looking to cover decades in hours, one wonders just how much of “Elvis” really happened to Elvis Presley?
From director Baz Luhrmann’s research in Memphis and Elvis’ birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, to scores of well-researched biographies, there is laudable accuracy to the film, which is in theaters now. Also credit star Austin Butler’s studious depiction of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
But we identified six moments in “Elvis” that made us scratch our heads. Just how true are they? For answers, we enlisted expert Alanna Nash, the author of several Elvis books (including “The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley” and “Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him”).
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Did B.B. King and Elvis Presley really hang out together on Beale Street?
King, who worked as a DJ in Memphis at the time, would certainly have been aware of Elvis, and vice versa, but they would not have been hanging out and catching acts such as Little Richard as the movie portrays, says Nash.
“Elvis and B.B. were acquaintances, but not close friends,” she says. “They probably first crossed paths at Sun Studio, but only briefly.”
There was an encounter in December 1956, when King was the headliner on the all-black WDIA Goodwill Revue. Elvis was asked to perform, but his contract wouldn’t allow it, Nash says.
But toward the end of the evening, DJ Rufus Thomas brought Elvis out for a “leg gyration and the crowd went wild.” Backstage, King and Presley posed together for a picture.
Was Robert F. Kennedy killed while Elvis was taping the ’68 Comeback Special?
The senator was shot elsewhere in Los Angeles, and not during the taping of that iconic Elvis TV special but during rehearsals, Nash says.
“Elvis arrived for the start of two weeks of rehearsals on June 3, 1968, and Kennedy was shot on June 5, dying the next morning, June 6,” she says. “The assassination put Elvis into an emotional spiral.”
The tailspin created by RFK’s death led directly to the special’s powerful finale. Show director/producer Steve Binder turned to songwriter Earl Brown to write an emotional ballad, “If I Can Dream,” that reflected Elvis’ hopes that the nation could get through such a crisis and heal.
“Interestingly, Elvis didn’t immediately jump on it,” Nash says. “He thought it might be a little too Broadway. He said, ‘Let me hear it again,’ and it was only after he heard it seven or eight times that he said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”
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Did Colonel Tom Parker convince Elvis to play Las Vegas to settle Parker’s gambling debts?
The connection isn’t nearly as direct as the film implies, which presents Elvis’ residency at the International Hotel as a way for Elvis’ manager to settle his sizable gambling debts at the hotel’s casino.
Nash notes that Parker (played in the film by Tom Hanks) was an inveterate gambler dating back to his early years in the carnival business, often decamping for Hot Springs, Arkansas, or Palm Springs, California, to satisfy his needs. Once he experienced Las Vegas, that became a frequent stop for the promoter.
That isn’t to say that Parker’s gambling and Elvis’ Vegas shows aren’t linked, she says. The colonel was said to be worth $1 million a year to the International because of his gambling, according to onetime International executive Alex Shoofey, Nash says.
“The rumor floated around town that Milton Prell, Shoofey’s old boss at the Sahara, had brokered the (Elvis) deal for the colonel, getting money from the mob to put the deal together,” Nash says. “Mob involvement is suggested in the film.”
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Did Elvis go into the Army to avoid being jailed for indecency?
Not true, Nash says.
“The colonel was delighted that Elvis was causing riots and grabbing headlines for being overly suggestive,” she says. “It’s part of why he wanted him in the first place. Parker, ever the carny, knew what brought people in the big tent.”
After Elvis was drafted, Parker – whom Nash notes was an Army deserter – worked with the Pentagon to ensure he’d be a regular soldier and not in the entertainment corps.
“He negotiated it as a PR move to make him appear to be the all-American boy,” she says.
Interestingly, when Elvis was stationed in Germany, he met future General Colin Powell, a lieutenant at the time.
Nash says Powell told her that he and Presley were out “in a field in the woods in Germany, and he just looked like every other pimple-faced (soldier), doing what other soldiers were doing and trying to get along. He properly saluted and sir’d me left and right, and I always admired that in him.”
Did Elvis actually fire the colonel from the stage in Las Vegas?
“No, he never would have done that,” Nash says. Nor did he ever suggest onstage that he knew of the colonel’s immigration issues.
“He fully believed the colonel’s story that Parker hailed from Huntington, West Virginia; Elvis died not knowing the truth,” she says. “That didn’t come out in this country until 1981.”
However, she adds, there was an incident a few years before his death when Elvis exploded at Hilton owner Barron Hilton. Elvis had gone to the home of an employee he liked, whose wife was dying from cancer, and Hilton terminated the employee because of a rule banning any contact between employees and hotel talent.
That night from the stage, Elvis delivered a furious attack on Hilton, saying he “wasn’t worth a damn,” she says. Parker was livid. The two argued into the night until Elvis, in his 30th-floor suite, fired Parker, who immediately replied that he quit and, as the movie depicts, “retired to his offices to draw up a bill” for what he claimed Elvis owed him.
The sum varies from $2 million to $10 million, she says, and as the movie shows, Elvis ultimately decided he couldn’t afford to pay and went back to work for the colonel.
Did Priscilla Presley really arrange for Elvis to go into rehab?
No, Nash says.
“She says in her book ‘Elvis and Me’ that she would occasionally hear that he had checked into the hospital, and that she would then call to see if he was all right,” Nash says.
In another one book, “Elvis by the Presleys,” Priscilla Presley says many asked her why she didn’t initiate an intervention.
Her response: “People who ask that don’t know Elvis. Elvis would no more have responded to an intervention than a demand to give up singing. … He would have undoubtedly laughed away any attempt at an intervention. There’s no one, including his father, who could have pulled that off.”
By the time Elvis was trying to get help for his addictions, his ex-wife was no longer in his life on a daily basis. Adds Nash: “Priscilla was not as involved with Elvis after their divorce as she would now have people believe.”