WHEN THE KING
Musical genius is a trending topic, in cinemas if not (as I write this) on Twitter. Movie biographies that have reached theaters in relatively quick succession include “Get On Up” (James Brown), “I Saw the Light” (Hank Williams) and “Miles Ahead” (a Miles Davis story that opens this weekend). Recently completed films yet to arrive in a Memphis movie house include “Born To Be Blue” (with Ethan Hawke as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker) and “Nina” (with Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone).
A problem with many of these productions is that talent, charisma and creativity don’t easily lend themselves to reproduction or imitation, even when (as in the case of James Brown) much of the musician’s appeal is visual. Second-hand representations of these uncanny figures and their ineffable gifts inevitably seem inadequate, even cheap.
“Elvis & Nixon” — a movie that is really about Elvis, even if its title promises a co-star — dodges this problem, in ways that testify to the smart choices of the filmmakers and to the legendary status of its first-named hero. By choice, the movie is essentially a comedy, which reduces the burden of being “faithful” to the Elvis character. But in relation that the Elvis legend, faithfulness is a chimera, because Elvis — unlike Hank Williams or Miles Davis — is so ubiquitous a pop culture figure that his image is no longer defined by reality. In the popular imagination, Elvis is Santa Claus, as instantly identifiable via a few visual cues (black sideburns, gold belt) as is St. Nick (white beard, red suit).
“Elvis & Nixon” also benefits from its economy. Perhaps some day an enterprising director will produce a serious Presley biopic to function as a movie complement to Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography, but “Elvis & Nixon” covers just a couple of days: The movie was inspired, essentially, by a single photograph, the famous handshake portrait of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon that was shot in the Oval Office on Dec. 21, 1970, and
that reportedly is the single most requested image from the U.S. National Archives.
Directed by Liza Johnson (“Hateship Loveship”) from a script credited to actor Joey Sagal, his wife, Hanala Sagal, and “The Princess Bride” star Cary Elwes, “Elvis & Nixon” immediately establishes itself as an unusual Elvis film by casting the distinctive-looking and typically menacing Michael Shannon as the King. Perhaps because Shannon’s features are so eccentric, Elvis is introduced with his back to the viewer, in the TV room at Graceland (actually, a set in Louisiana), shooting out the televisions that bring him distressing reports of Black Panthers and hippie protests in addition to football games and reruns of “Dr. Strangelove.”
A law enforcement and firearms enthusiast, Elvis travels to Hollywood to enlist his old buddy Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) in a plan to visit President Nixon at the White House and offer his services as an undercover federal agent-at-large. Asks Elvis: “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t offer to help?” (The idea that Elvis, described here as “one of the most famous men on the planet,” could go “undercover” is essential to the inherent absurdity that is the source of much of the movie’s comedy.)
As played by Pettyfer, Schilling is not only the handsomest person in the film, he is the story’s lonely voice of sanity — a man motivated by genuine concern for Elvis, and entirely disinterested in exploiting his friendship with the King (unlike the skirt-chasing “Sonny,” played by Johnny Knoxville). In fact, the movie could have been titled “Elvis & Nixon & Jerry”: The project was developed and co-produced by Schilling, the former Memphian and Elvis friend who was an eyewitness to the Oval Office visit, so Jerry functions in the story as an Everyman and the audience’s main point of identification.
Elvis has a few sympathetic speeches intended to ensure we don’t mistake Shannon’s performance for a caricature; he discusses his stillborn twin, and the hardships of celebrity. (When he puts on his Elvis guise, “I become a thing,” he tells Jerry. “I become an object. No different from a bottle of Coke ... They never see the boy from Memphis.”) But the movie is most enjoyable as a colorful period piece, a spoof of famous men and a satire of power; it’s even suspenseful, despite its foreordained outcome, as Nixon’s stubbornness threatens to scuttle the meeting before it occurs, Michael Shannon portrays Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey is President Richard Nixon in a “Elvis & Nixon.” The film imagines what happened on the strange December day in 1970 when two two met. despite the best efforts of White House staffers Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who promote Elvis to their boss by assuring Nixon that he “loves guns, hates the Beatles.” (In one scene, Krogh and Chapin hold a secret meeting with Schilling and Sonny in a parking garage; the location, with its “Deep Throat” associations, may be intended to allude to the Watergate scandal that eventually landed both Nixon aides in prison.)
Nixon is played by a hunched and (intentionally) awkward Kevin Spacey, who, like Shannon, is very amusing, in part because the comic context frees him from the need to be “convincing.” The contrast between the irredeemably square Nixon and the flamboyant, almost extraterrestrial Elvis (who arrives at the White House packing heat at several places on his body) is one reason the photograph of the men shaking hands has become so iconic, but, as the movie demonstrates, the men had a lot in common, too, in their isolation, celebrity and unlikely success (“You and me, we both rose from nothing,” Nixon tells Elvis).
Incidentally, no Elvis songs are heard in the film, but the soundtrack is packed with Memphis music nonetheless, including recordings by Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding.
“Elvis & Nixon” is exclusively at the Malco Paradiso.