Last night I watched Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie for the second time. As mesmerizing and engaging as it was the first time around, this biopic creatively captures the Elvis Presley so many of us remember. I never met Elvis nor, sadly, did I get the opportunity to attend any of his shows. But I grew up with his music, his movies, and his profound influence on the changing social norms of teenage culture. Elvis was my youth.
I was just 8 years old when Elvis made his historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. I’ll never forget that night. There had been a lot of talk about “this guy who sings and shakes his hips”. Back then, we tuned into our favourite radio stations for all the latest music and we had only seen photos of Elvis in magazines. Canadians of all ages waited in anticipation for his live television performance. Why was this Elvis person such a sensation?
My parents had invited friends over that night and we all gathered in the living room after Sunday dinner. Our little black and white television came to life and there he was—Elvis Presley. Wow! Even as a kid I could sense the energy and charisma emanating from this guy. He wasn’t just singing. With every twist and gyration, he was feeling the ecstasy of the music. I felt it too.
Of course, the adults weighed in with their official opinions.
“This guy will never last.” “He’s just a flash in the pan.” “He’s young and vulgar. No one wants to see that.” “His songs are silly and shallow.”
Oh, how wrong they were on every count. They never imagined that this boy would become the King of Rock and Roll. The 1950s saw the emergence of a distinct teenage culture and Elvis was a big part of that. His songs and his movies were woven into the fabric of our adolescence and beyond. We girls felt our hearts race at the flash of his crooked smile and the glint in his hooded blue eyes. Boys copied his hairstyle and his fashion—collars up, two-tone shoes, slim-fitting jeans. We flocked to his movies and bought all of his records. Even when the critics said his popularity was waning, he was still with us. One of his most iconic performances was that 1968 television special. He walked out dressed in black leather, ready to capture our hearts once again. He looked and sounded better than ever.
Then came the Las Vegas years with all the glitz, glamour, and bejewelled outfits. Audiences raved about these shows. He gave everything he had at each performance even as his health declined. He was no longer that sexy young boy but his voice was as powerful as ever. We could see that he was physically failing. He looked bloated, pale, and sickly. But he was only in his forties. We never imagined that he would leave us so soon.
The day he died, August 16, 1977, was my dad’s birthday. We had just blown out the candles on the birthday cake when the news came over the kitchen radio. Elvis was dead at 42. My stomach sank. A wave of shock and disbelief threatened to capsize me. I ran to the living room window and stared blankly at the golden prairie fields. I was 29 years old with two children—a two-year-old and a 10-month-old. I had been married for 9 years already and I was in complete control of my life, wasn’t I? I felt breathless, unsteady, and remarkably out of control at that moment. Something had shifted. “Nonsense,” I told myself. I tried to shake off these feelings of foreboding. A year and a month later my father died at the age of 63 and my life changed forever.
Elvis Presley marked the passage of my childhood, the exuberance of my teenage years, and the arc of my twenties. His influence can still be felt in modern pop culture. He broke the rules and blurred the lines of musical genres and gender. He was a part of all of us, a part of me. Thanks for the memories, Baz Luhrmann.