Beyond Elvis Kitsch
Elvis kitsch is all encompassing. It’s hard to find a vein of Elvis lore that hasn’t been tapped. But Canadian filmmaker Evan Beloff and his buddies manage to say something new about the King. Or try to.
Set in motion by a Wall Street Journal article about Elvis’s Jewish roots, i.e., his great, great maternal grandmother was Jewish, Beloff decides to undertake a quest. He wants to go to Graceland to answer a series of increasingly metaphysical questions. Was Elvis Jewish? If he was, what would that mean? Why would it matter? Does it matter? Why are we making this movie?
This documentary, made in 2000, is really a charming little anti- documentary. It’s a documentary that deconstructs itself. It is full of talking about talking. A quest for meaning that dissolves into a bunch of questions, it wisely decides not to provide too many firm answers. It is about Elvis. It is also about nothing. Not surprisingly, the film has been compared to a Seinfeld episode. That is, if Larry David had sent Jerry Seinfeld and crew down to Memphis to ask people on the street what they think about Elvis being Jewish and nobody really had an answer beyond, hey, that’s fine with me.
The documentary, which has had some success on the indie film circuit, will largely interest an indie film crowd—but not Elvis fans. It is self-aware and ironic, and it uses the idea of a Jewish Elvis as an occasion to question what pop music icons mean, what Jewish identity means, and why people are drawn to music or religion. It won’t shed much new light on Elvis, beyond the central observation about Elvis’ Jewish roots and his support for Jewish groups in Memphis.
But it does have a good time asking meta-questions about why people might care and about what a documentary film is supposed to do, anyway. In the end, the guys decide Elvis is Jewish, but implicitly, all that means is that his all-encompassing appeal to groups beyond racial and ethnic and cultural lines is even more demonstrably all-encompassing. Perhaps all they really discover is the joy of endlessly debating such questions with good friends while traveling around the world.
The film follows Beloff as he enlists his Rabbi, Reuben Poupko, director Max Wallace, good buddy Jonathan Goldstein, some crew members, and, most importantly, Jewish Elvis impersonator Dan Hartal, on this quest. Appearing at old folks’ homes as “Schmelvis”, Hartal can’t really say why he is drawn to Elvis or why he performs as a Jewish Elvis, replete with Star of David-bedecked costumes. But he seems to have a great time with it, and his audiences like it.
Starting in Montreal, the crew pile in a Winnebago, drive to Tupelo, Mississippi to visit Elvis’s birthplace, then to Graceland in search for Elvis’s Jewish roots, where they find something different from what that they expected. Then they fly to the Holy Land for more questing, then head back to Memphis for the biggest Elvis impersonator contest in the world. All of this is in search of the meaning of Elvis. Or what the significance would be if everyone knew Elvis had Jewish roots.
The film’s tone significantly shifts as they continue on their quest and get more serious about it. At first, Beloff is ironic and chipper, seeming to find the topic of Elvis an inherently kitschy one. Such relentless irony always risks being condescending, self- indulgent, and pointless. The implication is that he thinks the ironic juxtaposition of Elvis and Hasidic Judaism, as enacted by Schmelvis, will generate enough observational humor to justify a movie.
But as the men involved start to become frustrated with their quest, they become more self-reflective and interesting. Goldstein wonders what they’re doing in Memphis, saying that it seems wrong that they came down to the South expecting to find rednecks that would react with anti-Semitism to the information that Elvis has Jewish roots. With only a couple of exceptions, all the Elvis faithful in Memphis for Elvis week (the anniversary of Elvis’s death) happily adopt an “everyone’s welcome” attitude when queried on camera. Their earnestness and commitment to what they think Elvis stands for (almost a spiritual investment in him as a singer who provides them with comfort through his music) eventually makes the crew stop viewing them as “freaks” who are there merely for an urbane viewer’s ironic amusement.
Instead, the crew turns the corner and starts to believe in Elvis, too. When they interview people who knew Elvis, including George Klein and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, their flippancy starts to seem churlish in the face of so much earnest belief. They go to the Holy Land because they feel like the wall outside Graceland, where fans inscribe messages and pray, is like a Wailing Wall, and they want to draw that comparison. While in Israel, they visit the second largest tourist attraction in the country: the Elvis Inn, where Shmelvis sings in front of an Elvis statue to clapping Palestinian children decamping from a tour bus. The film tries to suggest that Elvis’ music can bring peace in such moments, but it doesn’t really prove or follow up on that observation, which ends up seeming forced and heavy handed.
During the muddled ending, Schmelvis tries to appear at the impersonator contest in Memphis, but doesn’t end up going on stage because the organizers fear he’s there to mock Elvis. Hartal’s slightly confused response is that Elvis himself would have understood what Hartal was trying to do; Elvis embraced his Jewish roots, Elvis didn’t discriminate against anyone, and Elvis would have appreciated the homage. It seems that they’ve ended up in a tautology, i.e., Elvis provides the only answer and guidance to the question of Elvis.
Beloff eventually implies that the film has a lot to do with his own quest to explore his Jewish identity. Ah, now that makes more sense. The DVD includes a commentary track from him and his Rabbi that follows up a bit on that theme but the track, mostly just includes more talking around the issue, as in the movie itself.
There are some readily evident insights that could have been articulated all throughout the film (many academics work on these questions of how people shape a sense of identity and community through an identification with music, and the question of Elvis and inclusive cultural politics has been a matter of much debate). But this film isn’t really about giving answers. It’s about the joy of the quest and the use of a documentary as a tool for discovery. Especially when the revelation ends up being all about self-discovery.