The public is sheltering at home, but Elvis — to update Mojo Nixon’s famous affirmation — is still everywhere.
At least it seems that way, if you, like a yogi attuned to the mystic, remain aware of him and the signs of his presence.
For 21 years, I wrote an annual column I called “Elvis Allusions in the Movies” — a compendium of all the times Elvis Presley was seen, heard, referenced or name-dropped in the movies I had attended during the previous year.
The point was to demonstrate that although Elvis quit acting in movies in 1969 and died in 1977, he remained a fixture in feature films. In other words, Elvis never left the building, if the building was a movie house.
Some years, I found Elvis in more than 30 films; in other years, he showed up only a dozen or so times. But he was always there.
Sometimes, the Elvis aspect of a movie was central, as in 2001’s “3000 Miles to Graceland,” in which Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner don Elvis jumpsuits to rob a Vegas casino during a convention of Elvis impersonators.
More often, the Elvis allusion was confined to a single joke or needle drop, as when the King’s recording of “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” is heard during a monster attack in the 2014 reboot of “Godzilla.”
The last of these columns appeared in 2017. When The Commercial Appeal stopped running movie reviews on a regular basis, I stopped seeing almost every new movie, and I no longer had a significant enough “sample size” to justify a meaningful Elvis survey.
But now, three years later, it’s time to play catch-up. With “Elvis Week” itself being an essentially virtual event this year due to the coronavirus shutdown, 2020 seems like an appropriate time to revive “Elvis Allusions in the Movies,” since the column is devoted to Elvis as experienced on a screen.
A difference: For the first time, I’m including movies that debuted on cable or online as well as in theaters (which, after all, have been mostly closed since March).
A caveat: I still don’t see nearly as many new movies as I once did, so I’ve probably overlooked a lot of Elvii. Let me know if you made an Elvis sighting that I missed.
So, here we go cat, go — here are the Elvis allusions in the movies I noticed between Elvis Week 2017 and Elvis Week 2020.
The most “Elvicentric” movie event during this period was the release of what we might call the “Christmas at Graceland” trilogy on the Hallmark Channel, namely “Christmas at Graceland,” which debuted in 2018, and “Wedding at Graceland” and “Christmas at Graceland: Home for the Holidays,” which both aired in 2019. Extensively chronicled in The Commercial Appeal, the three made-in-Memphis movies were produced by Hallmark in partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises; each of them not only uses Graceland as a location but presents Memphis as a place where the spirit of Elvis is as pervasive as the Force in the “Star Wars” universe. As an event planner states in “Wedding at Graceland,” with no apparent fear of contradiction: “Everyone wants to get married at Graceland.”
In Martin Scorsese’s Netflix epic of American gangsterism, “The Irishman,” narrator Robert De Niro marvels over the long-running fame and influence of labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino): “In the ’50s, he was as big as Elvis. In the ’60s, he was like The Beatles.”
In an early scene in the sardonic Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” the young future vice president (Christian Bale) falls from a telephone pole while working as a lineman. Observes a co-worker, as Cheney lies twisted on the ground: “His leg looks like an Elvis dance move.”
A particularly vulgar comedic Elvis allusion occurs in “Deadpool 2,” when the R-rated Marvel super-antihero played by Ryan Reynolds has a vision of his recently deceased, sexually enthusiastic fiancee (Morena Baccarin), who visits him from the afterlife. “Don’t blank Elvis,” Deadpool says, although, of course, in the movie he doesn’t say “blank.”
The futuristic science fiction sequel “Blade Runner 2049” introduces an Elvis hologram in the ruins of Las Vegas that sings “Suspicious Minds” and, later, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Comments an aging replicant-hunter played by Harrison Ford: “I like this song.”
Speaking of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” that Elvis classic is performed by singer-songwriter Kina Grannis during the elaborate wedding sequence in the romantic hit “Crazy Rich Asians.”
In the sequel “Paddington 2,” the digitally animated beloved bear of the title finds himself framed for theft and sent to prison, which gives the filmmakers a chance to include a shot of the front page of the in-house prison newspaper, Hard Times. In a witty nod to the lyrics to Elvis’ hit “Jailhouse Rock,” the headline reads: “Warden Throws Party in County Jail.” The secondary headline adds: “Spider Murphy confirmed on tenor saxophone.”
Young piano prodigy Reggie Dwight (Kit Connor) — the future Elton John — is gifted with a copy of Elvis’ debut RCA album — held up and thrust into the camera lens — in “Rocketman,” the musical biopic about the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” superstar. “I know you like him, he’s quite a dish,” Reggie’s mom (Bryce Dallas Howard) says about Elvis. When Reggie is jokingly told he’ll need a “proper haircut” if he wants to be a “rock-and-roller,” the boy asks: “Can I get it cut like Elvis?” The sequence begins with Elvis’ rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” on the soundtrack, accompanying the narration of the adult Elton (Taron Egerton), who remembers: “I discovered records — and rock-and-roll.”
In “Battle of the Sexes,” which re-created the famed 1973 tennis match between feminist icon Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and proud chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a fashion adviser tells King to ditch her blue suede shoes. Responds Billie Jean: “If they’re good enough for Elvis, they’re good enough for me.”
Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” a silkscreen painting adapted from a publicity photo of a Wild West Elvis in the 1960 movie “Flaming Star,” is among 13 masterpieces (some others include Manet’s “Olympia” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”) sought by art thieves in a strange animated film from Hungary, “Ruben Brandt, Collector.” During a fantasy sequence, the dual Elvises from the painting come alive, multiply and behave like actual gunslingers.
The biopic “Blaze” cast Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley, the cult Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter who died in 1989 at 39. For much of the film, Blaze and his girlfriend (Alia Shawkat) live in an isolated forest home that matches the couple’s eccentricities. “Come on, look at this place, open your eyes,” says the man who rents the duo the odd house. “Graceland has got nothing on this, am I right?”
Emilia Clarke, the Mother of Dragons in “Game of Thrones,” faces the less lethal challenge of holiday season romance in modern London in last December’s “Last Christmas,” which includes a sequence in which various homeless people audition for a fundraising musical. One man, dressed in ratty jacket and wool cap, sings Elvis’ “I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you”; the montage concludes with him drawling, Elvis-style, “Thank yuh veruh much.”
A ready-made cult film on Amazon Prime, “The Vast of Night” finds a radio deejay (Jake Horowitz) in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s trying to track the perhaps extraterrestrial source of an eerie interference noise. “And for the caller who can help us out and can tell us what the sound is,” he says over the air, “we’ve got a free piece of Elvis’ carpet pulled directly from his floor in Memphis.” Later, his teenage friend (Sierra McCormick) is shocked that the deejay doesn’t actually have access to Elvis’ floor fabric: “But that’s lying! People really think that’s Elvis’ carpet!”
“Captain Marvel,” which introduced Brie Larson as one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel universe, includes an Elvis reference once-removed (or maybe twice), when the lyric “Andy, are you goofing on Elvis?” can be heard as the R.E.M. song “Man on the Moon” plays in the background of a scene.
Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never” is heard on the soundtrack as spy Blake Lively arrives in Marseilles to carry out a climactic assassination in “The Rhythm Section.”
The tongue-in-cheek, hide-and-seek horror thriller “Ready of Not” is bookended with covers of Elvis’ famous romantic ballad “Love Me Tender,” the first by 1960s R&B crooner Chuck Jackson, the second by current rock band Stereo Jane.
Screened at the 2018 Indie Memphis Film Festival, the shaggy independent comedy-Western-musical “Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes” includes a shot of the album cover for Elvis’ “King Creole” soundtrack, seen alongside “The Patsy Cline Story” and “Rubber Soul” as a man flips through the selections on a well-stocked jukebox.
It may be harder to find a music documentary that doesn’t mention Elvis than one that does. In “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band,” Robertson, the lead guitarist and chief songwriter for The Band, remembers experiencing “my own personal big bang” when he was 13, and rock-and-roll burst onto the airwaves: The accompanying montage includes pictures of such performers as Little Richard, B.B. King and, of course, Elvis (the cover of his first album). Later, when the teenage Robertson leaves his native Canada to join performer Ronnie Hawkins in Fayetteville, Arkansas, we see the famous picture of the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash) as Robertson discusses the significance of the music of the Delta region.
In the Joan Jett documentary “Bad Reputation,” Miley Cyrus wears a T-shirt with Elvis’ face on it as she, Jett and Laura Jane Grace perform a cover of the Replacements’ “Androgynous.” Earlier in the film, Kim Fowley, the so-called Svengali manager of Jett’s first band, the Runaways, opines in an old interview that an all-female band was the logical evolution of popular music, because “the guys just kept getting more and more and more feminine — Elvis was feminine.” We also see Fowley on “The Tomorrow Show,” theorizing that “the fragmented ’70s,” unlike the ’60s and ’50s, could not be dominated by a single artist, like “one Beatles and one Elvis Presley.”
More shirt action: We see Sting, during the early days of his fame in The Police, wearing a T-shirt with Elvis’ face on it in “The Go-Go’s,” a new documentary on Showtime about the hit 1980s girl pop-rock band. Also, Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey reports that the two records she owned in second grade were an Elvis record and Strauss’ “Blue Danube”; and we see Elvis’ name in the lead of a Rolling Stone story about the Go-Go’s.
Shirt action 3: Drummer Greg Morrow wears a T-shirt featuring the iconic cover of Elvis’ debut album in the documentary “Waiting: The Van Duren Story,” which sought to bring overdue international attention to Van Duren, the still active Memphis power pop songsmith.
Shirt action 4: Bruce Springsteen wears an Elvis shirt in an old picture included in his recent concert movie/travelogue, “Western Stars.”
“Free to Rock,” a documentary that examines the “soft power” of rock-and-roll in causing social change behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, uses footage of Elvis in the Army and on television, performing “Blue Suede Shoes,” to accompany reports that East Germany’s news organization had labeled Elvis “Public Enemy No. 1.”
“Elvis Presley was ‘negro terror’ music,” says the late Omar Higgins, lead singer for the Memphis political punk band Negro Terror, in John Rash’s hourlong documentary “Negro Terror.” The remark comes as Higgins describes the fears of white parents in the early days of rock-and-roll who believed Black artists like Chuck Berry and even white artists who emulated Black singers, like Elvis, were a threat to the white supremacist social order.
“Memphis Majic,” a documentary about the Memphis-born urban dance style known as “jookin,” includes a photo of the Elvis statue; connects footage of Elvis dancing in “Jailhouse Rock” to the earlier onstage calisthenics of Memphis R&B/jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn; and includes this quote about the dance style’s appeal: “When I see jookin, it reminds me of Elvis.”
In the non-music documentary category, Wade Gardner’s “Marvin Booker Was Murdered,” about a former Memphis street preacher killed by jail guards in Denver, includes a still photo of Booker pointing at the Elvis Presley Plaza sign on Beale Street, with the statue of Elvis in the background.
The documentary “Obit.,” which looks at The New York Times’ comprehensive approach to chronicling the deaths of notable people, includes a section about the deadline pressure that accompanies unexpected celebrity deaths. An accompanying montage includes Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Elvis (in public domain footage related to the singer’s Army service).
And who did write about Elvis’ death for The New York Times? We find out in “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins,” a documentary about the late iconoclastic Texas reporter and columnist. In archival footage, Ivins says the newspaper was “completely unprepared” to cover Elvis’ death, and she got the assignment because the Yankee editors said, “She talks funny, she’ll know about Mr. Presley.” In addition to writing the Times’ front-page Elvis obit (“I had to call him ‘Mr. Presley’ throughout, it was agonizing, that’s the style at The New York Times”), she covered Elvis’ funeral in Memphis (“the plump corpse” was “laid out in a cream-colored suit,” she wrote). “If I really need to impress people, I just let fall that I covered Elvis’ funeral,” Ivins says. “It may yet turn out to be my greatest claim to fame.”