December 09, 2013

Elvis At 21 - National Portrait Gallery, Canberra




Another exhibition, yet again highlighting an example of Western culture. 

Like him or loathe him there is no denying the influence Elvis Presley had in his heyday and it continues on and on.

There are so many performers who have tried to imitate him: to look like him and sound like him, and even more that were inspired by him. 

Many of these performers are among my own personal favourites.

For example The Beatles.

"Nothing really affected me until Elvis," John later reflected, and this simple statement just about says it all. At that moment the effect upon him was total, almost as if everything that had happened to him until then didn't matter. Sure, John had been impressed by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and by the spectacle of the classroom violence instigated by the menacing young Vic Morrow in The Blackboard Jungle, but that was only acting. Elvis, on the other hand, was the living reality”.

When The Beatles came along, they in turn inspired many, many other performers all around the world. I guess the most obvious effect was the “British Invasion”

Elvis was not the first person to have a huge group of hysterical fans. This happened earlier to Rudolph Valentino and much later to Frank Sinatra.

And it is still happening to today’s contemporary musicians.

I have chosen the clip of “Jail House Rock”. It was not Elvis’s first single but it is the title song of this 1957 movie. I think Elvis did the choreography if I remember correctly.

I sometimes wonder, but will never know for sure, if this clip inspired Rob Marshall’s choreography and direction of Chicago’s “Cell Bock Tango” and also his “Be Italian” in the movie “Nine”. Both clearly show Marshall’s style.

Since I am a fan of rock music I really appreciate all the results of Elvis's existence. 

So, in spirit, “Elvis has NOT left the building”! 
And hopefully never will.
IT was 1956, the year Grace Kelly married her fairytale prince in Monaco, Morocco and Tunisia gained independence from France and Melbourne held the Summer Olympics. There was the Suez Crisis, a vanquished Japan became a member of the UN, and a singer from Memphis, Tennessee, stood on the precipice of unimaginable fame.

The world was fast changing but history is a fickle affair and unarguably the most culturally important of those events was the emergence of a black-haired, blue-eyed southern boy with swivelling hips and the soulful voice of a gospel artist. 
In 1956, Elvis Aaron Presley, 21 years old and dangerously handsome, had arrived like a hurricane with a roar that would wake up God-fearing, straight-back-and-sides America.

The singer the critics said probably couldn't even spell Tennessee would soon "own" Tennessee and borders beyond. As James Brown would later say: "He taught white America to get down."

This seminal year in Elvis's evolution marked the start of his real stardom and the end of his anonymity. In 1956, long before the likes of Madonna and Sting got ahead with a singular name, the goldmine who'd always be known simply as Elvis had entered the public consciousness, his rise hurried along by the powerful pull of the new medium of television.

Fathers everywhere soon knew they'd need to keep their daughters safe from the anti-Christ, the gyrating devil who newspapers as diverse as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Tacoma News Tribune denounced as "morally insane" and "untalented and vulgar".

As Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog topped the charts and decent young American women fainted at Elvis concerts, a sign at a Cincinnati used-car dealer's lot announced: "We guarantee to break 50 Elvis Presley records in your presence if you buy one of these cars today."

In March that year, perhaps with as much prescience as promotional nous, the RCA Victor recording company hired a freelance entertainment photographer, Alfred Wertheimer, to spend about 10 days with Elvis during the spring and summer of the 12-month period that would prove to be the making of the king of rock 'n' roll.

Wertheimer was given virtually unbridled access to snap candid shots as RCA's newly signed singer cut an increasingly visible swath from Tennessee to New York and back to his heartland roots.

In January 2010, to mark what would have been Elvis's 75th birthday, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC launched a travelling exhibition, Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, which has since successfully toured the US. 
The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra is the show's first overseas venue.
 NPG associate registrar Maria Ramsden says: "The Smithsonian has specified the exhibition layout but allowed a few tweaks from our designer. The images follow a timeline within the short period that Wertheimer was with Elvis . . . after this, Elvis's manager, Tom Parker, was incredibly protective about Elvis's image and tightly controlled who got close and what images were released to the public."

There are 56 black-and-white quadratone prints in the exhibition, including 40 large-format framed images. "The works are digital pigment prints [and] we are seeing more of this technique in our [photographic] collections," Ramsden says.

What is instantly apparent in the Wertheimer oeuvre is that these are not fan pin-ups or staged portraits. In a shot of Elvis kissing an unnamed girl in the stairwell of the Jefferson Hotel in Virginia (June 30), for example, the viewer feels like a voyeur; it's as if Elvis is completely unaware of the camera.

Aside from their unscripted feel, what is so remarkable is that Elvis often appeared to be unrecognised by those around him. In many, he even looked puzzled -- sprawled on a couch in his room at the Warwick Hotel in New York (March 17), he was reading fan mail. There were not hundreds of thousands of letters but a few dozen and he appeared, like a true southern gent, to be reading every one.

Elvis was filling time between a rehearsal and performance for big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show. Wertheimer was a fan of Tommy's and that's why he accepted the RCA commission. The photographer, who was 26 in 1956, is still alive and in interviews associated with the premiere of the Smithsonian showing, he insisted he had never even heard of Elvis.

That night after the Dorsey show, Elvis met a few rugged-up fans outside a stage door at CBS Studio 50 (later to be the Ed Sullivan Theatre) and Wertheimer was there for the shot. But the momentum was growing -- compare that picture with one taken on the night of July 1, after he had performed Hound Dog on The Steve Allen Show. Fans in the audience at the Hudson Theatre reached out to touch him, waving autograph books; the hysteria had started.

Heading home a few days later to Memphis on the Southern Railroad, however, Elvis appeared solitary, unrecognised. At Chattanooga, he sat at a counter in the station diner -- no fans, none of the bodyguards, police escorts, stalkers or opportunistic hangers-on who would infest his later life. It was as if he only really existed in the public eye for the moments just before, during and after his performances.

There's even a shot Wertheimer took in the train's washroom. Paper towels had run out so Elvis flicked his hands dry, hips at a dance angle; the temptation to hum All Shook Up while looking at it is irresistible.

Later that day he was at home at 1034 Audubon Drive, Memphis, the home he bought for his parents when Sun Records sold his contract to RCA (he purchased Graceland in 1957). Freshly showered and bare-chested, Elvis was with his high-school sweetheart, Barbara Hearn, listening to cuts of his songs from the New York recording sessions. It was such an average domestic scene that it's hard to imagine Wertheimer was ever in the room. It's this non-intrusive technique, and the young star's pensive demeanour, as much as the subject matter, that gives the collection such a sense of immediacy.

"Elvis permitted closeness," Wertheimer has said. "I put him under my microscope and studied him, only my microscope was my camera lens. He permitted you to go as close as three feet from his face and he wouldn't act any different than if you were 20 feet away. He was able to focus so much on what he was doing."

Wertheimer shot about 2500 pictures of Elvis, but it wasn't until the star's death in 1977 and a phone call from Time magazine that interest in the collection was renewed. Wertheimer reckons: "The phone hasn't stopped ringing since."

The interest in early Elvis among fans of all ages seems insatiable; there seems to be a collective hunger to recapture that moment of possibility, all but frozen in time, like the fascination with the early promise of Marilyn Monroe and the unfulfilled potential of James Dean.

True fans gloss over the (burger) king of the 1970s, that choc-fudge cookie and cornbread-eating Graceland recluse given to dubious taste in sequinned jumpsuits. In 1993, the US Postal Service couldn't decide which image to use for a commemorative stamp -- slim Elvis the Pelvis or the bloated crooner -- so it sent out ballot papers across the nation. The Love Me Slender lobby won, declaring it would be a case of Return to Sender if a photo from the fat years were used.

In 1983, the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Centre opened in Memphis; it's a proper medical facility, although the name suggests fans could check in to deal with grief-induced depression, albeit 36 years after the king's death. I am one such die-hard devotee and have been twice to Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, "to be received" but, unlike the Paul Simon lyrics, for reasons I could explain.

In 1995, on August 16, Elvis's "death day", I attended a candlelight vigil by the king's memorial at Graceland. Elvis Presley Boulevard had been blocked off and about 20,000 fans had set up camp with sleeping bags and homemade shrines featuring devotional images of the young Elvis with the licorice-slick sideburns, the quiff, the pelvis and the pout.

Members of the Looking for Elvis Spotters' Club handed out recruitment flyers as did zealots from the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine in New Jersey -- their religion requires them to face Memphis daily and pray. Equal opportunity Elvis impersonators strutted their stuff -- dark-haired, white-skinned adult males were outnumbered by wheelchair-bound grannies, black jivers and Asian Elvises.

I met a woman of about 50 who insisted she was married to Elvis (who didn't die but was relocated by the FBI "for his own safety") and when I looked sceptical, she produced a photo of herself in a bridal gown, standing next to a cut-out cardboard figure of Elvis, circa 1960, in his US Army uniform.

Many a thesis has been written aimed at decoding Elvis and his legacy. 
After Elvis's death, Pat Boone said: "There's no way to measure his impact on society or the void that he leaves." 
Many believe just in the alchemy of timing and talent. 
John Lennon famously declared: "Before Elvis there was nothing."

Elvis's shoot to stardom paralleled the emergence of a generation who were crying out for significant change, stifled by the straitlaced mores of the postwar era. His very differentness and his accentuated sexuality gave young America -- and soon the world -- a reason to rebel, an idol of their own.

The jury may be out on the ultimate legacy of Elvis but, for his legions of loyal fans, the signature tune Always on My Mind, (below), rings clear and true. I am full of giddy-headed excitement over the Elvis at 21 exhibition. Long live the king.

Elvis at 21 is at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, from December 7 to March 10.

By Susan Kurasawa

With many thanks to The Australian



Picture credit Elvis opening fan letters in 1956, and black and white photo: Arthur Werthheimer

Picture credit stamp: Art Beat 

Picture credit: Remember Elvis from Elvis on CD
Picture credit of Paul McCartney and George Harrison: Elvis Presley: “The King meets The Beatles”



Elvis at Graceland - 1950's.Picture credit: @HistoricalPics

Above: via Twitter - @HistoryInPix


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