Elvis: a star is torn
Most people's lives appear simple when you're not living them. Even a life as controversial as Elvis Presley's as told by most biographers fits a fairly simple graph. He rose to fame in the 1950s, sleepwalked through much of the 1960s, staged a comeback and then declined, inexorably, to what many (including his greatest biographer Peter Guralnick) see as an inevitable, almost merciful, death at the age of 42.
Yet historians warn us that it's too easy to read history backwards after the fact. And after reading many of the books and interviewing some of the people who were there in Elvis' final years, I got a sense not of a life careering, toboggan-like, to an untimely end but of a life that, as late as 1975, could have taken a different, healthier, turn.
For me, two episodes in Elvis' professional life in 1974/75 are crucial. First, his failure to realise the dream of making a karate documentary. Second, in early 1975, when he was so low that Colonel Parker had decided not to risk him for a full season in Vegas, his failure to take up Barbra Streisand's offer of a starring role in A Star Is Born.
I'm not saying that if Elvis had made either or both of these movies, he would still be alive. But maybe, by galvanising him as the 1968 TV special had done, they might just have prolonged his life by shaking him out of the emotional and artistic torpor which marred so much of his final years.
To take the Streisand offer first, opinions differ about how badly Elvis wanted to play the role which eventually fell to Kris Kristofferson. Last year, I interviewed Jerry Schilling, present when the offer was made, and he had no doubt that Elvis was desperate to land the part. It's probably best to let him tell the story. 'Barbra came up to his dressing room after one of his concerts to discuss the part. I was surprised to see her because we'd been to see her a few months ago and Elvis and I had gone backstage and Barbra had asked him what he thought of her show and Elvis had said 'You've got a great voice Barbra but you will keep putting your hand in front of your face while you sing and it's very distracting'. At that point, I figured we'd probably never see her again.
'But she came backstage with Jon Peters they talked the offer through over some food. After they left, I could tell he wanted to do it but, as with so many of the things he wanted to do at that point in his life, he expected people would try to stop him. I made a few points, particularly about the problems if her boyfriend and hairdresser Jon Peters produced the movie, and he got very angry at me.'
For readers obsessed by tabloid trivia, there is a rather lurid tale of a night of passion between Elvis and Streisand in one of the more sensational biographies of Barbra which, if true (and it's a big if) makes her offer even more intriguing.
Ernst Jorgensen, in Elvis Day By Day, says that Colonel Parker asked for $1m in salary, $100,000 in expenses and 50 per cent of the profits, demands which killed the deal. Schilling says 'There was no way the film's budget could stand two superstar salaries and Elvis didn't care about the money. He was smart enough to know that this kind of supporting role could be his way back into the movies.' And, as Elvis told Marlyn Mason, his co-star in The Trouble With Girls, the one professional ambition he felt he'd never achieved was to make a movie good enough so that Hollywood could no longer laugh at him.
In this instance, Parker may have worried that his client's erratic behaviour might be exposed by his chores on a film set. (And, to be fair, Streisand and Peters never made a serious counter offer.)
It was a legitimate concern but if Elvis' career proves anything it is that he was at his best when he could focus on an immediate, significant, goal. 'This was,' says Schilling, 'not a man who waited for challenges but a man who looked for them, even at this point in his career.' And Vegas, after Aloha From Hawaii had been beamed to a billion people, was no longer a challenge.
For a man who, in his carny days, used to paint blackbirds yellow and sell them as canaries, Parker showed a surprising lack of imagination in his management of Presley. His basic tactic was to take a formula (sound-track album spawning movies, punishing concert tours) and flog it until the profits ran dry. The profit in Elvis' continuous touring (exclusively of the US) had run out by 1975 and the Streisand offer might have been the very thing to lift El out of his rut.
One final point which even Parker might have understood: the Streisand-Kristofferson A Star Is Born made $37m at the US box office. That's seven times as much as any Elvis film had ever made at the American box office.
The karate movie, which started out as a kung fu variation on the Western theme of the gunfighter coming out of retirement and mutated into a documentary, is often portrayed as the whim of a spoilt rich recluse. Yet investors had been keen on the idea and, given the success of the Bruce Lee movies and El's own still considerable appeal, it might have worked.
Parker, trying to save his client from himself, did his best to limit Elvis' financial exposure. And the movie fizzled out, after getting as far as a production office. Schilling says the movie was canned because of Elvis' ill-health, adding 'it was a damn shame because it could have been good and it could have made some money'. He concedes that, as with the Streisand offer, Elvis may have just tired of the political infighting.
The same weariness would restrict Elvis' productive time in the recording studio in the 1970s, a fact for which he has been much been criticised. But his bass player Norbert Putnam told me that, as the 1970s wore on, he realised he was being offered, for the most part, material which had been thumbed over (and rejected) by the likes of Tom Jones. Which may explain why, increasingly, the songs that moved him most were old personal favourites like anything by Roy Hamilton or Chuck Berry's Promised Land.
Elvis usually gets most of the blame for his decline and untimely death. And he would, in a moment of honesty, admit his responsibility. But his management, so sure footed in the 1950s, actually undermined him as the 1970s wore on. Not deliberately but through a series of incremental errors: deterring him from returning to American Studios, refusing to consider anything other than a record deal or a tour becoming obsessed with generating enough short-term cash to pay for Elvis' sprees and Parker's gambling losses.
In the last two years of his life, Elvis (like the narrator of Suspicious Minds) was caught in a trap. And the heartbreaking part about those final years is that you can sense him, in his more lucid moments, asking the question put by American humorist Will Rogers: 'If stupidity got us into this mess, why can't it get us out?'
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