ELVIS IN VEGAS: Sunday 3rd January, BBC2
“He loved being Elvis Presley, there’s no doubt about that. But I think he started to dislike himself and lost his desire to be, Elvis Presley.”
This opening line from Tom Jones sums up the ambiguous mental struggle the king of rock and roll contended with during his infamous life-time.
Then again, Jones does recall some questionable anecdotes during this documentary on the singer’s life, including the early years when Elvis studied the Welshman’s dance movements for inspiration (why are old films of Tom Jones always so cringe-worthy?) and the time Elvis used his toilet (“I was washing my hair in the shower and I heard him singing!”).
Odd cameos aside, this is the story of how Elvis Presley, together with his manager, steel-eyed agent Tom ‘The Colonel’ Parker, revitalised Las Vegas into the hip money-spinner and tourist attraction it is today. But when he first arrived there in 1956 aged 21 he failed to make an impression.
Under the wing of a frankly terrifying sounding (and looking- this man wears a permanent oversized cowboy hat and cigar) Parker, he was turned into a movie star overnight. Cue famous footage of ‘Jail House Rock’ and other colourful money-making musicals that will have you tapping your toes but Presley suffering an identity crisis. “He didn’t want to do musicals… riding a horse and singing to a cow eventually got to Elvis,” Jerry Schilling from the ‘Memphis Mafia’, the “yes-men” around Presley, confides.
This all changed in the NBC TV Christmas special of 1968, which saw Elvis adopt his trademark sultry leather-clad image. Singing lines such as, ‘If you’re looking for trouble, look right in my face’ (he was probably right; his jaw line could cut glass) may not sound very festive but did make him a household name.
From 1969 he became a regular at The International Hotel, Las Vegas, where he ironically originally flopped. Thousands flocked to the city to see Elvis and his white elaborate body suits only he could get away with (“The way he was built made a perfect ‘V’,” explains his costume designer, i.e. they really would look stupid on a mere mortal).
At two shows a night four times a week for five years, there’s a lot of fun, ‘sing-along’ footage that’s documented, along with hotel employees saying what a right laugh Elvis was (“You needed three people to pick up his outfits!” a cleaner chuckles). We also get access to his private hotel suite, where much of his notorious behaviour took place.
The high life famously took its toll on Presley and those around him. His wife Priscilla tells her story, along with ex-girlfriend Linda Thompson who elaborates further, calling him Crazy, Santa Claus and The Fallen Angel to name but a few.
The ‘Fallen Angel’ moniker is noted via a dependency on prescription medication, ramblings on stage and a strained relationship with his manager, a gambler who turned out to be dishonest to say the least.
It is a wonder Elvis remained the loyal, spiritual person he is depicted as in this documentary, which is an overall engaging and heartfelt look into the symbiotic marriage of the entertainer to Vegas, his stage.
On wearing three necklaces of different religions when he performed, Elvis said, “I don’t want to miss out on heaven on a technicality.” As we approach what would have been his 75th birthday next Friday, The King needn’t worry – to his allegiance of fans, he still lives on as their saint.