Elvis's Early Years
Movie Review: The Last Train to Memphis
Graceland Pictures, 2015
Howard Don Jamison, Movie Reviewer, The New York Times
Full Disclosure. I have long been an Elvis Presley fan, or rather a fan of Elvis's music.
Early in this new movie about the King of Rock 'n Roll, in a drawn out scene covering what I consider a pivotal point in his career --
make that the pivotal point -- I cried.
It is a steamy Memphis night, July 5, 1954. Elvis is but 19 years old and yearning to make his musical talents known.
His only outlet is a struggling recording studio, Sun Records.
Sun's proprietor is one Sam Phillips, a legend now but then an
unknown recording engineer whose stated desire is to find local, white talent that can
capture the soul sound of the region's black rural population. To make ends meet he advertises "We will record anything, anywhere -
at any time."
Elvis has already been to his studio two or three times to record songs "for my mother," at $4 a pop. Somewhere in the back of his
mind he surely hopes to be discovered, but it's not happening. He works as a truck driver, and keeps showing up at Sun. He has a good voice,
and one day Phillips invites him to sing some ballads. For the session Phillips brings in two professional musicians as
backup, Bill Black (bass) and Scotty Moore (guitar). They, too, are now legendary.
Elvis sings his ballads, but nothing clicks. The night goes on, no spark. They take a break. The evening's about over. A dud, it
seems. Then Elvis starts foolinF around on his guitar with a song written in the 1940s by one Arthur "Bigboy" Crudup,
called That's All Right Mama. (Sun leaves out 'Mama' in the title. Click
here for the song on youtube.)
Elvis sings it in a bluesy style, and the two pros pick up and join him. They're not being recorded now,
just having a good ol' time. Phillips hears them and says something like, 'wait a minute, what's that? Let's record it.'
As I watch Elvis sing into the mike the tears come. Because I know that this singular event is the
start of the most remarkable music career in our nation's history (Jolson, Sinatra, Dylan and Jackson notwithstanding).
And we all know how it will end, in tragedy just 23 years later.
(Some consider That's All Right the first true rock and roll record. Others anoint as first the
1951 recording of Rocket 88 by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston.
Historians also say the Vikings discovered America before Columbus but we recognize Columbus, because after him everything changed.
Having an early rock record and birthing Rock 'n Roll are two different animals. Elvis started it all.)
Last Train is based on Book 1 of the masterful Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick,
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise
of Elvis Presley. Book and movie cover the period from childhood in Tupelo, MS through his stint in the army (1958-1960).
Guralnick wrote the screenplay, and as in the book he takes no license with fiction or embellishment.
What you see is what really, really happened (with one major exception - see below).
Presley is played by two actors, the unknown Jason McBride as the young Elvis (rougly 12-14), and then as a young man
by the remarkable Joseph Hall, who has already made a career as Elvis impersonator (see album covers and listen to his rendition
of hound dog). The physical and vocal
resemblence is remarkable.
Priscilla is played by 16-year-old Bridget Sanderson. Priscilla doesn't have a big role in the early years, but as
played by Sanderson it's not hard to understand Elvis's attraction. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's Dutch-born manager (born
Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk), is played by
Willem van Djinn, unknown in this country but a character actor in the Netherlands. In his late 40s when he took on Elvis,
Parker's life is interesting enough on its own for at least a documentary; here we just get a glimpse of his ruthelss devotion
to Elvis's career.
Whether or not you ever liked Elvis's music, you can't help but be enthralled by the historical aspects of his meteoric career:
- How delta blues and gospel music infused his early work.
- The status of segregation in 1950s Memphis. (The night That's All Right was aired on the radio Elvis was interviewed in the studio by the local disk jockey, who had both black and white listeners.
To inform his audience that Elvis was white -- you couldn't tell by the singing -- he asked Elvis "What Memphis high school did you attend?"
The answer -- Humes High School -- answered the question.)
- The early appearances on The Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows, and how on one appearance Sullivan had cameras
cut him off at the hips, so viewers couldn't see his wiggling.
- The start of his movie career (31 films total).
- His purchase of Graceland, on what is now Elvis Presley Drive in Memphis.
- His time in the army when, in Germany, he first met future wife Priscilla; she was just 14 and he 23.
Ah, yes, the exception to verisimilitude. On December 4, 1956 Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes") and
Jerry Lee Lewis had a jam session at Sun Studios. It was sort of a fluke that all four seminal musicians got together at once.
Perkins was there to record a song, Lewis came by to hear him, and Elvis (now famous) was in town and dropped by to say hello.
Sensing something historic, Sam Phillips called up Johnny Cash (who lived in Memphis) to come on by.
Phillips also called the local newspaper, Memphis Scimitar; they sent a reporter and
photographer. There ensued an impromptu jam session that covered over three dozen songs of the day, all recorded by the
studio. It was totally unrehearsed, and included chatter between the songs.
The picture of the four musicians (minus
Elvis's girlfriend at the time, who is in the uncropped photo) is now iconic, and the Scimitar
labeled the picture "The Million Dollar Quartet." (From left to right: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Johnny Cash)
A recording of the jam session was released years later, and is the basis for a popular off broadway musical
Quartet, nominated for best musical in 2010. The musical is now
touring around the country.
Unfortunately, it was not a true quartet. In reality, Johnny Cash was only there for the picture; he did not sing or
take part in the jam session. (If he did, you cannot identify him on the original recording.) However, because of the news
photo and the ensuing legend, Cash is a major character in the play and is shown in the movie's 'quartet' scene.
That's OK with me. The scene is true to the legend and vastly entertaining (and doesn't mess with Elvis's career).
The movie succeeds on all levels, not least because Hall's renditions are eerily on the mark.
He is perhaps the nation's top Elvis impersonator, and will likely be doing this
gig for years to come. Rather than dub the soundtrack, the producers let Hall sing, and if you close your eyes it almost --
almost -- sounds like the real thing.
Will there be a sequel, to cover the period 1960 until the King's death in 1977? Unlikely. Guralnick titles Book 2
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. The story's not pretty and I don't like to think about it. Makes me want to cry.
* * * * *
Posted October 5, 2014; Revised March 2, 2015
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