Return to Spender
Elvis was a hero to most,
But he never meant shit to me, you see.
Straight up racist, that sucker was
Simple and plain.
Motherfuck him and John Wayne.
—Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
The rehabilitation of Elvis has been a long time coming. Before his death in 1977, his backup band struggled to maintain its dignity as the tubby ex-titan mumbled through his greatest hits, hair dye and eye makeup streaking down his peanut-butter-and-banana-puffed jowls. After his death, Albert Goldman’s fascinating 1981 biography, Elvis, exposed everything from drug addiction to bad personal hygiene. Then came the bandwagoneers, the anxious insiders who saw the burgeoning cash cow and wanted a snort off that tell-all teat before the parade passed them by. By the late ‘80s, biopics filtered through the catalysts of friends, family and freeloaders filled the airwaves. By the end of the decade, Presley was a dirty white trash joke, a thief of African American culture who deserved his idiotic impersonators.
Since then, the public has been allowed into Graceland, the tackiest place on Earth. The movie Heartbreak Hotel (1988) restored the image of a shimmering God in gold lame, as did Peter Guralnick’s 1996 book, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. No more grisly autopsy reports. No more portion-by-portion gluttony breakdowns. Just simple, insightful discussions of the man, his talent, and his challenge to ‘50s social propriety within pop culture. In 2002, a dance remix of an obscure Presley song hit number one in the U.K. And, following the most recent Beatles ballyhoo, RCA raided their archives for an anthology of certified chartbusters, 2003’s Elvis: 30 # 1 Hits. Suddenly, he was important again. The forever 42-year-old was back with a well-marketed vengeance.
The new direct to DVD documentary, 200 Cadillacs, continues the process of recanonization. Directed by Dan Griffin from a concept by musician Rex Fowler, the movie argues that Elvis was bighearted and openhanded, perhaps to a fault. Over the course of his short life, he gave away millions in gifts, cash, and personal mementoes. Elvis’ favorite gift was an extravagance most people can only dream about owning: it is estimated that he gave away nearly 200 Cadillac automobiles.
The film’s premise—to trace the beneficiaries of these vehicular vestments—is borderline genius. Most went to employees and family members; others were tokens of gratitude, a way to say thank you for a decent hospital stay or a favorable meeting. Still others arrived, factory-delivered, for no apparent reason, because he saw someone who wanted one, or liked a television broadcaster’s response to a question. According to 200 Cadillacs, Presley’s was a classic addictive personality, with the unfortunate ability to overindulge in everything and anything he wanted, from food and adulation to pharmaceuticals. That he was also addicted to giving away cars is no great shock.
The documentary asks us to understand this reclusive man by exploring his moments of charitable extroversion. The problem is, these moments are often eclipsed by the gargantuan myth that precedes them. As part of the film’s proselytizing, Elvis’ closest confidants tell wonderful anecdotes about “mystery” beneficiaries, names and whereabouts still unknown, on whom he bequeathed expensive autos. None of these are interviewed here, though. Instead, the film focuses exclusively on these lovers, band mates, employees, and business associates, who all tend to say the same thing: Elvis was a great guy because he gave them great presents. Only one or two of his devotees still own the cars; most others sold them to exploit their famous friend’s collectability.
Minor yet mesmerizing points (one of the famous cars ended up being used by prison inmates as part of a mechanics class) are mentioned too briefly. And sometimes, the salutes are just too saccharine for human consumption. When ex-girlfriend Linda Thompson, bodyguard Sonny West, and personal assistant Jerry Schilling offer their well-rehearsed readings of the good old boy Gospel according to Graceland, it’s easy to see that the Presley propaganda machine is in gear even decades after his death. Elvis’ longtime nurse forgives his junkie antics because he lavished her with presents, her fawning absolution making any misdeed seem like a silly little slip-up rather than a suicidal tendency.
In other words, most fans will fancy this praise-a-thon. For many, Elvis will always be the King. Others will look to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and other artists of color as the founders of rock and roll. But there is no denying the impact of the boy from Tupelo. He showed the world that roots music could be sexy and wild. His Southern charm and boyish baritone turned the “music of the people” into a manic message for the masses. The awful image of Elvis lying face down in his bathroom, pants around his ankles, does need to be eradicated, or at least contextualized. But, about the only thing that 200 Cadillacs confirms is the once and future health of the Presley coffers.