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Elvis: A Celebration (Images of Elvis Presley from the Elvis Presley Archive at Graceland®)
Mike Evans
London: Dorling Kinderlsey, 2002.
£25.00, 612 pages, ISBN 0-5513-7340-0.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Elvis: A Celebration is a pictorial tribute. Indeed, it is a portable altar to the star, in the strongest sense of the word “star”, as defined by Edgar Morin or more recently Richard Dyer, the star as divine being, complete with vivacious cult, temple (Graceland), and worshippers (millions of diehard fans throughout the world).

This book packs 612 pages of photographs, very little text (the captions and introductions / different eras are well-researched and straight to the point), 2.7 kilos of pure scopophiliac pleasure: Elvis at two, Elvis at five, at six, ten, eleven, with blond hair. A couple of school pictures, and then we move on to Elvis’s teens, and marvel at the growth of the sideburns and the soon-to-be trademark quiff (still brown). We quickly reach the mid-fifties and the Sun Studios period, and soon behold Elvis with a guitar, Elvis with Bill Haley, or Elvis with deeply-stirred fans. Page 68 is a portrait of the 1955 William Speer series: half-naked sex symbol Elvis, looking much more like a Hollywood hunk than a Southern rocker, smoldering eyes and Bardot pout.

Judging by the pictures, it is in 1956 that Elvis discovered he could dye his hair raven black. He very rarely returned to brown. Around 1956 too, the quiff began occasionally evolving into a pompadour. The movie pictures that follow remind the reader of that inescapable fact: the King never made an acceptable movie in his entire career. This, in my opinion, is the best way to watch a Presley Hollywood vehicle: sit quietly at home with adequate food and drink provisions, play your DVD or VHS tape and turn off the volume of your TV set; play digitally remastered fifties recordings of the heartthrob’s biggest classics on your CD player. When he launches into song in the movie, pump up the volume of your TV set and silence the CD player for the duration of the musical number. It helps to own remote control devices in good working condition. I know this will shock the purists. The entire filmography is hopeless, but it does not in the least mean that you should deprive yourself of the opportunity of gazing at the Presley magic at work: he moves, he walks, he smiles, he occasionally gyrates his hips.

In 1958, of course, Elvis the Pelvis was drafted. “The draft into the US army could have been a disaster for Elvis Presley’s career”, writes Evans, “but the combination of a backlog of records and films to keep the fans happy, and the positive press he would receive in ‘doing his duty’ like any other GI, ensured that his time in the Army provided him with an even higher public profile than before his recruitment.” [236] The army pictures are funny and strangely moving at the same time. Elvis is seen wearing all sorts of military uniforms, with all sorts of caps (the forage cap is my all time favorite).

Page 323 features the photograph of Elvis as a cowboy from Flaming Star (1960), standing straight with his legs apart, holding a gun in his right hand. I wonder if the Hollywood studio executives realized the camp implications of the enterprise in general, and of the movie’s title in particular. Andy Warhol certainly did. He used that posed studio photograph as the basis of his pop-artization of the King in 1964. In the sixties, Elvis’s cheeks began to fill out. That did not stop him from posing for hundreds of movie-related pictures that uncannily evoke other icons: there is Elvis as John Wayne, Elvis as Steve McQueen, Elvis as Marlon Brando, even, famously, Elvis as Clint Eastwood in Charro! (1968).

The Priscilla wedding pictures, pages 384 to 389, make you wonder how that extraordinarily dated face ended up looking as it did in Dallas a million years later. Priscilla’s bouffant hair is a scream in the birth-of-Lisa-Marie Photoplay shots. From 1970, Elvis’s hair is far too long, and his sideburns, wide as freeways, eat up his face. But who, among those of us old enough to have chosen our own clothing in the seventies, can boast of having entirely avoided the summits of “dorkiness” that were then reached? Even those who followed every trend of the past four decades and proudly survived them turn the pages of their photo albums twice as fast when they get to the tight shirts with the enormous collars and the Elvis Ray-bans.

Elvis: A Celebration is a perfect gift for fans and Cultural Studies specialists alike. The book draws to a close, inevitably, with the bloated Las Vegas Elvis of the end: puffy face, hairy chest and stage ruby-studded costumes that out-Liberaced Liberace. But Evans has wisely limited the number of these pictures. The last image, I am glad to write, is a glamorous 1956 Love Me Tender pose. It is followed by interesting “facts, figures, and statistics on the life of Elvis”. I hope I shall be forgiven for the following clichéd conclusion to my review: Elvis Presley died twenty-five years ago. The King is dead, long live the King!

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