There are celebrities who transcend mere levels of fame to become an icon. Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and Muhammad Ali all come to mind as pop culture figures that achieved a level of ubiquity that firmly embedded them in the fabric of 20th century pop culture, impacting the cultural imagination in a way that can still be felt today. And among those icons, there’s another 20th century figure that feels more legend than man at this point in time: Elvis, baby.
Born in 1937 to Vernon and Gladys Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley moved to Memphis, Tennessee as a teen, where he developed an interest in music and signed his first record deal at 19. Breaking through in 1956, Presley helped to popularize the Rock and Roll genre, taking inspiration from Black artists of the time and developing a controversial reputation for his energetic performances and often sexually-charged dance moves. Over the course of his long career, he sold over 500 million records, won three Grammys, helped popularize Las Vegas residencies for musical artists, starred in a string of successful movies, and nabbed the records for the most albums charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and the most RIAA-certified gold and platinum albums.
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But even if you don’t know all of that, you know Elvis. You know the gravelly voice. You know the shaking hips. You know the slicked-back hair and the glittery white Vegas jumpsuit, or the “Jailhouse Rock” black and white suit, or the leather black one from his 1968 special. You know “Uh huh huuuuh” or “Thank you. Thank you very much.” The man Elvis Presley is a controversial figure — for his alleged plagiarism of Black artists, as well as his relationship with his ex-wife Priscilla when she was 14 and he was 24 — but the cultural figure Elvis is an unstoppable behemoth, with his iconography some of the most parodied and emulated symbols in the popular imagination.
Like Monroe, Elvis has long been a figure portrayed on film, even outside the 33 theatrical films he made over the course of his life. A lot of these portrayals were just quick references and cameos in films like “Forrest Gump” or “True Romance,” but the last two years have seen a full-on Elvis revival with two feature films about Presley’s life. The first, Baz Luhrmann’s divisive “Elvis,” is a delirious and hyperactive blockbuster biopic featuring an adoring and titanic performance from an undeniable Austin Butler, who went full method for the role. This year’s entry into the Elvis canon is a lot more revisionist: “Priscilla,” a Sofia Coppola film that focuses on the courtship between the musician (played by a suitably pathetic Jacob Elordi) and his young wife (Cailee Spaeny) from her point of view, painting a decidedly unglamorous picture of the 20th century’s most famous musical artist.
With “Priscilla” opening nationwide, IndieWire looked back to find the best cinematic references and portrayals of Elvis. The selections range from straightforward portrayals of the man on film, such as Butler and Elordi in their respective biopics, as well as parodies of the man like in “Walk Hard.” We also threw in some iconic Elvis needle drops and covers from songs, as well as a certain blue aliens immaculate Elvis impression. Read on for the best cinematic portrayals of Elvis. Let’s have a little less conversation and a little more reading, please.
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