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How Accurate Is Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’?

Our resident Presley expert separates fiction from fact in the box-office smash


spinner image Austin Butler stars as Elvis Presley in the film Elvis
Austin Butler stars as Elvis Presley in "Elvis."
Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Baz Luhrmann’s hit biopic Elvis replicates in such detail so many scenes, events and wardrobe — the frilly shirt the singer wore when his mother died; the stained tablecloth the Colonel uses as a Las Vegas contract — that it’s easy to believe everything in the film is accurate. But how accurate is Elvis, really? We separate fact from fiction in 10 key scenes, in the order they appear in the film, and score each on a scale of zero to 10 on our proprietary Elvis Truth-ometer.

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Don’t miss this: The Amazing Roster of Stars Who Have Played Elvis Presley On-Screen

1. The Colonel (Tom Hanks) first sees Elvis (Austin Butler) backstage at the Louisiana Hayride.

What it means in the movie: The Colonel, standing in the shadows, stalks the hillbilly newcomer Elvis Presley at the Louisiana Hayride and realizes, “He was my destiny.”

What happened in real life: On Jan. 15, 1955, Colonel Parker traveled to Shreveport, Louisiana, to watch Elvis on the Hayride, but it was not Elvis’s debut on the live radio show. Furthermore, D.J. Fontana, Elvis’s drummer, remembered that it was not the first time Parker had seen him, as the movie portrays. In Texarkana, “We would see him walkin’ around, hanging back in the shadows, but he never would say nothin’,” Fontana said. The night Parker saw him on the Hayride, Elvis performed three songs, but not “Baby, Let’s Play House,” as the film so electrifyingly shows. In the film, Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ assistant at Sun Records, is shown standing and screaming along with the teenage girls. That happened, but at Elvis’s Memphis show at the Overton Park Shell in 1954. 

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 5 out of 10

2. The Colonel confronts Elvis in a carnival house of mirrors.

What it means in the movie: Elvis and the Colonel size each other up.

What happened in real life: The Colonel tells Elvis he looks like he doesn’t know how to get out of the fun house, “but I do. Allow me to show you,” and springs the door to the exit. This indicates to Elvis that he is in need of direction, and that only the Colonel can guide him. That scene never happened in reality, but the screen Colonel speaks the truth when he says, “creatures of the carnival, and I am one myself.” He started in penny carnivals — we briefly see the word “geek” when the Colonel first sees Elvis from behind — and progressed to managing country stars Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow, portrayed in the film. As for the dancing chickens, briefly shown, that have long been associated with the Colonel, in truth it was a dancing duck on a hot plate covered with straw, and a stunt perpetuated by one of Parker’s friends, not the Colonel.

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 5 out of 10

spinner image Tom Hanks stars as Colonel Tom Parker in the film Elvis
Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker
Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros. Pictures

3. The Colonel sells “I Love Elvis” and “I Hate Elvis Buttons.”

What it means in the movie: Colonel Parker brandishes Elvis’s name on a plethora of merchandise, covering every angle.

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What happened in real life: In 1956, the Colonel peddled both “I Love Elvis” and “I Hate Elvis” buttons to folks who reacted strongly one way or another to the new singing phenomenon. He contracted with merchandiser Hank Saperstein to make 78 different articles, including Elvis charm bracelets, Elvis lipstick in “Hound Dog” orange and Elvis glow-in-the-dark busts.

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 10 out of 10

Don’t miss this: The Strange Love Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley

4. Elvis incites a riot at a Memphis charity concert.

What it means in the movie: Elvis is angry about having to sing to a dog on The Steve Allen Show and curtail his dance moves.

What happened in real life: Elvis felt humiliated to be fitted for a tux and sing to a basset hound, a move orchestrated to add a comedic touch, and as Allen put it, “to “present the ‘new’ Elvis Presley” and “make sure that he conducts himself in a gentlemanly manner.” In protest, Elvis said at his Russwood Park show in Memphis on July 4, 1956, “You know those people in New York are not going to change me none. I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.” The film has him saying those words, but Barbara Hearn Smith, Elvis’s girlfriend (who is briefly shown sitting with Presley’s parents as she did in real life), tells AARP, “The concert at Russwood Park was absolutely nothing like it was portrayed in the movie — not even near accurate — and no awful riot as shown.” In actuality, the film combines several riotous reactions from other cities with the pinkie wiggling from a Jacksonville, Florida, show. The song he sang in the film (“Trouble”) was not yet out in 1956.

spinner image Austin Butler hugs Helen Thomson while looking into a mirror in the film Elvis
Austin Butler (left) and Helen Thomson
Warner Bros. Pictures

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 4 out of 10

5. Gladys Presley (Helen Thomson) falls down the stairs at Graceland.

What it means in the movie: Elvis’s mom develops a drinking problem. 

What happened in real life: Gladys Presley was a nervous woman who feared greatly for her son’s safety once fame hit. She died in 1958 of a heart attack due to “hepatitis, acute, severe,” which can be caused by alcohol abuse. In the film, we see Gladys downing vodka, and beer bottles prominently displayed in Graceland when Elvis’s parents have lunch. It was no secret that Gladys took diet pills to look slimmer in photos with her son, and his entourage remembers her drinking beer. But falling down drunk? “I never saw that,” says Barbara Hearn Smith, who spent a lot of one-on-one time with Gladys and adds she never smelled liquor on her breath. “She did not deserve such treatment [in the film]. Elvis would never forgive anyone who allowed that.”

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 6 out of 10

6. Scene: The Colonel hates the ’68 Comeback Special team, saying, “Those hippies had brainwashed Elvis, acting like he was one of them radicals.”

What it means in the movie: Parker tries to intervene with the direction of the show. 

What happened in real life: Elvis’s manager hoped to turn him into Bing Crosby for a family Christmas TV special, but director Steve Binder persuaded Elvis to return to his glory in a mesmerizing performance. Binder also had the emotional finale, “If I Can Dream,” written so that Elvis could address the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The special rejuvenated Elvis and inspired him to take control of his recordings, but the Colonel saw Binder as a threat and made sure he couldn’t reach his client ever again. However, Parker was not as bumbling and inept as the film implies.

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 8 out of 10

7. Elvis fires the Colonel from the stage and confronts him about being in the country illegally.

What it means in the movie: Elvis knows Parker has been lying to him about taking his tour overseas.

What happened in real life: Elvis had been saying for years that he wanted to play concerts in Europe, but the Colonel cited difficulty in controlling security and the size of European venues as to why that couldn’t happen. Elvis was frustrated, but the dramatic confrontation is fabrication: Elvis never knew that Parker was from Holland, and never fired him from the stage.

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 0 out of 10

spinner image Austin Butler and Olivia deJonge face each other up close with their eyes closed in the film Elvis
Austin Butler (left) and Olivia deJonge
Ruby Bell/Warner Bros. Pictures

8. At 40, Elvis tells Priscilla (Olivia deJonge) that he’s never made a classic film and that no one will remember him when he’s gone.

What it means in the movie: Elvis is out of dreams.

What happened in real life: Elvis actually said, “People aren’t going to remember me, because I’ve never done anything lasting. I’ve never made a classic film to show what I can do.” But he told this to Kathy Westmoreland, his high-harmony singer, not to Priscilla. The Colonel quashed the attempt of frequent Elvis songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to get him to star in A Walk on the Wild Side — just the kind of film that might well have been memorable and changed the trajectory of his film career.

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 5 out of 10

9. Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon) dunks Elvis’s head in an ice bucket.

What it means in the movie: Elvis is too drugged to perform, and the Colonel shows no compassion, bellowing, “You listen to me! The only thing that matters is that that man gets up on that stage tonight!” Dr. Nick gives him a shot to bring him around, and Elvis does his show.

What happened in real life: This really happened, but in a hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, not in a hallway in Las Vegas. 

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 9 out of 10

10. Colonel Parker’s voiceover near the end of the film

What it means in the movie: Here’s what the Colonel says in a voiceover: “What killed my boy? Dem doctors say it was his heart. Others, the pills. Some says it was me. No. I’ll tell you what killed him. It was love. His love for you.” The Colonel steadfastly refuses to accept any blame for his role in Presley’s death at age 42.

What happened in real life: Who, or what, killed Elvis? Whether fame, circumstances, genetics or addiction played a part, Elvis was largely responsible for his demise by not insisting on more control over his career and his life. As the late Waylon Jennings wrote in his memoir, Waylon: An Autobiography, “He had not progressed very much from when he was 18; he was still like a little boy, in so many ways. All he did was play like a kid, and sing. If anything, I don’t believe that he was deep enough inside. It was too easy to get caught up in the parties, the fancy cars, and the girls.”

Elvis Truth-ometer Score: 5 out of 10

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