Christian Slater is playing it cool. At the beginning of True Romance, he macks on a B girl, saying, "In Jailhouse Rock, he's rockabilly: Mean, surly, nasty, crude. Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse, you know?"
Of course, she knows. Good-looking dead kids have been popular among the young and foolish since Lord Byron plucked Percy Bysshe Shelley's inflammable heart from the smoldering pyre and handed it to his estranged but hopelessly devoted wife Mary for safekeeping. But there's a crucial element missing from Slater's classic commentary: Between the amphetamine kick of the fast lane and the cold comfort of leaving a beautiful memory, at least according to the established rules of pop culture, a man must find the time to love hard. Honky-tonk heartthrob Faron Young, who, like Elvis, was once protégé to master exploiter Colonel Tom Parker, first expressed this rebellious notion in song. Of all our early pop-culture icons, James Dean and Hank Williams actually came the closest to living that sad life. Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens don't even come close. But poor Elvis, for having died so prematurely, lived a little too long and a little too hard to leave the best-looking corpse. And worse, he was unfortunate enough to die amid the gaudy excess of the 1970s. Being a man of his time, the last images he left behind are often so grotesque they eclipse the true Elvis. After all, who can reconcile the ghostly wail of "Mystery Train" with the jumpsuit and the jelly doughnut? Who can separate the sultry bedroom eyes from the smoking television? Not Hollywood. Since his death, filmmakers have been hard-pressed to distill much humanity from Elvis' myth. Instead, they make him the butt of America's biggest inside joke: Fame kills you twice. He's either remembered as a clown (the Flying Elvises in Honeymoon In Vegas) or emulated by gun-toting badasses with chips on their shoulders (True Romance, 3000 Miles To Graceland).
Memphis filmmaker John Michael McCarthy got pretty close to the truth in his semisatirical short Elvis Meets the Beatles. McCarthy's Elvis confronts a smug John Lennon, saying, "Let me tell you something, you funny-looking, long-haired sonuvabitch. One of these days, being John Lennon is going to mess you up, and you'll have to pay for it." Shortly thereafter, an angry Elvis chases the Beatles through the streets of Memphis in a surreal montage that could have been plucked directly from A Hard Day's Night. Just as Elvis is about to catch the Fab Four, they vanish, only to reappear behind him. They are now chasing him, and he's running hard. It's the history of rock-and-roll boiled down to a two-minute sequence of comic-book splendor. Outside Jim Jarmusch's ectoplasmic Elvis (a lost spirit trying to find his way back home) in Mystery Train, McCarthy's montage is the closest any cinematic fiction has come to nailing the triumphs and tragedy of our King.
Fifteen minutes after True Romance's Slater makes his qualified declaration that, if his life depended on it, he'd fuck Elvis, he's up to his eyeballs in blood and cocaine. Of course, he's not a bad guy. He's just in love. Anybody who's ever seen an Elvis movie knows how quick the King was with his fists whenever a love interest was threatened. But, still, the hyperviolent aspects of recent Elvis-obsessed films are far more in keeping with the myth of Jerry Lee Lewis. In 3000 Miles To Graceland, Kevin Costner isn't your ordinary Elvis impersonator/psychopathic killer. He's Elvis' bastard son, denied his rightful throne at Graceland, expressing his anger and grief through a series of explosions. He is Lucifer, God's prettiest, deadliest angel. In Looking For Graceland, Harvey Keitel's more gently deranged impersonator, though all too human and without the benefit of supernatural powers, saves a young man from the depths of depression and gives him a reason to live and love again. If it had been developed as a Sunday-afternoon television series, it would surely have been called Touched By an Elvis. In Honeymoon In Vegas, Elvis (in the form of Nicolas Cage) is seen as a cross between God Almighty and The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock, swooping down from the heavens to save his sweetheart from marrying an asshole. In The Pickup Artist, Robert Downey Jr. is accosted by a mugger in a dark alley. What does Downey do? He begins to swivel his hips and belt out an Elvis tune, that's what. The mugger runs. The message: Don't mess with a guy who thinks he's Elvis; he's nuts.
When it comes to the many faces of Elvis that Hollywood has given us, what's not easy kitsch is all pure, candy-coated myth. Elvis fans can't be normal, everyday people who work normal, everyday jobs and have normal, everyday problems. They are either cousin-loving, trailer-park fashion plates involved with aliens, Bigfoot, and all manner of paranormal activities (see Independence Day, Men In Black, The X-Files) or armed and dangerous. Though there have been a handful of biographical films and a reverent TV series, Hollywood has shown little interest in Elvis as anything but a gimmick. A surprising exception, given its increasingly stereotypical juxtaposition of Elvis and aliens, is Disney's Lilo & Stitch. In it, young Lilo declares that Elvis was a model American citizen. And she's closer to the truth than one might imagine. The poor boy from the ghettos of Memphis who became a prisoner of his own fame was certainly a concentrated American, the living embodiment of our cultural extremes: devout, carnal, generous, suddenly violent, playful, sullen, the center of the universe, and completely lost.
Hollywood has always been fond of surface, and when it comes to the legacy of Elvis Presley, it's all they've scratched.