Elvis Presley was fully ascendant when photographer Roger Marshutz took his iconic picture at the Tupelo Homecoming show, September 26, 1956. His single that paired "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" dominated the summer charts and the film Love Me Tender was already in production. In crisp black and white, Marshutz captured a sweaty, glowing Presley, mic cradled in one hand, reaching out with the other to touch his fans — like God in Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. This electric moment of real contact between a hometown boy from the wrong side of the tracks and his ecstatic, loving fans becomes especially potent in light of the isolation and detachment that defined Presley's later life.
The city of Tupelo, Mississippi, commemorated this frozen moment on August 9th with the unveiling of a seven-foot bronze statue created by Mississippi sculptor William Beckwith and modeled after the Marshutz photograph. It was also inspired, in part, by the fevered imagination of Memphis comic-book artist, musician, and filmmaker Mike McCarthy and his obsessive drive to recreate and rearrange the missing and difficult pieces of his personal history.
"The 1956 Homecoming concert may be the single most important rock-and-roll event," says McCarthy, a Tupelo native who's spent a lot of time looking at available photographs from the show, searching for familiar faces in the crowd. The couple that adopted him are there. So is his biological mother.
The Brooks Museum of Art commemorates the 35th anniversary of Presley's death by screening a pair of McCarthy's films: Native Son, a personalized documentary about the making of Beckwith's bronze sculpture, and Tupelove, a 15-minute short created for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors' Bureau featuring Corey Parker, Amy LaVere, and the voice of Presley's original drummer, D.J. Fontana. Tupelove recreates the look and texture of Teenage Tupelo, the campy, semi-autobiographical sexploitation feature McCarthy shot 18 years ago.
"I wanted Tupelove to end with the characters reaching out toward this idea that wasn't there," McCarthy says. "I thought it would be a great idea for Tupelo to have a statue of Elvis in the Marshutz pose, and I pitched the idea before I was even finished writing the script."
McCarthy took the idea to Sean Johnston at the Tupelo CVB, who brought it before the city.
"And it took off like crazy," says McCarthy, regretting only that major public works take time and that he had to come up with an alternative ending for his film.
It's been 18 years since McCarthy and collaborator Darin Ipema maxed out their personal credit cards to the tune of $12,000 to make Teenage Tupelo, a mashup of revisionist Elvis mythology and McCarthy's own imagined birth story.
In 1995, when Teenage Tupelo screened at the Hoka, a single-screen movie theater and health-food restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi, McCarthy met his older biological brother. When Tupelove screened at the Oxford Film Festival last year, he met the rest of his biological siblings.
"Every time I create an Elvis-themed movie, I have another Tupelo-themed family encounter," McCarthy says. "This time I hit the mother lode so to speak."
In September, scouting locations, McCarthy found his mother. He knocked on her door with an 18"x 24" framed photo of Elvis reaching down into the crowd in Tupelo. It wasn't a perfect reunion, but, after some small talk, she identified herself in the photograph.
"It sounds good, but let's see how it looks," McCarthy says of a story that's still unfolding and a film — Native Son — that won't be completed until the day before its screening at the Brooks. He's more certain about the future of the Elvis statue.
"It's just like Elvis," McCarthy says. "Everybody can see it. Everybody can enjoy it. Everybody can relate to it. And it will drive traffic to Tupelo from Memphis."
Tupelore: Tupelove and Native Son
Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, August 16th • 7 p.m., $8