Elvis Film Review

Again, the devil took him to a very high Ferris wheel and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will wear a tuxedo and sing to a Basset hound. These are the only things that help – these tablets”

There is a tendency in pretty much every film with a male protagonist that the filmmakers want us to see as heroic, to try to create parallels with the life of Jesus. That’s certainly been the case with most of the previous dramatisations of Elvis Presley’s life — he’s portrayed as a Messianic figure, come to save a fallen world with the power of rock and roll, at least when he isn’t portrayed as a dumb hick who happens to have been blessed with a talent he didn’t understand, and which he squandered while destroying his own life.


Often those two portrayals have been simultaneous ones in the same film — portraying Presley as an idiot savant who could do precisely one thing, which was being a hip-swinging rock and roll rebel, but who was otherwise not really a fully-rounded human being, not a human being at all. He was God or Devil, but what he definitely wasn’t was a human being.

Baz Luhrmann’s new film, paradoxically because it is so stylised, so obsessed with myth and story rather than with accurate portrayal of reality, comes closer than any other fictionalised portrayal I’ve seen of Elvis’ life to actually portraying the real human being, as I understand him to have been from the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen. It doesn’t avoid Messianic portrayals altogether, but Elvis-as-Jesus is only the third layer of the character. The second, higher, layer, is something close to the real person as he seems to have existed. And the top layer, of course, is Captain Marvel Jr. — Luhrmann has taken Elvis’ real-life love of and identification with the character, and has used it to cast Elvis as the lead of a superhero film, which in these times of Marvel-dominance of the cinema was probably a good commercial idea as well as showing far more understanding of Elvis as a person than any of the many previous portrayals seem to.

But while Luhrmann’s Elvis is both a superhero and a nuanced human being, his Colonel Tom Parker, through whose eyes we see the whole film, is much less nuanced. He is, put simply, the literal Devil. Put slightly less simply, he is the Devil as he might have been portrayed by Orson Welles.

This is one of the few things about this film that surprised me, something that wasn’t signposted in the trailers, which otherwise gave a perfect idea of what the film was going to be like — the film is heavily intertextual, and most of the intertexts for it are given away in the trailer, but the trailer doesn’t say just how much this film is very specifically riffing on the work of Orson Welles. The Colonel’s death scene, at the very beginning of the film, evokes Citizen Kane, as do some of the shots of Graceland, but there’s also a scene in a hall of mirrors that’s clearly meant to make viewers think of The Lady of Shanghai, while there’s a Ferris wheel scene that will of course bring back memories of The Third Man (while both the Ferris wheel and the hall of mirrors are clearly appropriate for the Colonel’s carnie background). Stretching a point a bit, Tom Hanks’ fatsuit and makeup as Colonel Parker do make him look very like the real man, but they also reminded me at least of Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

Now, this is appropriate in a lot of ways — Elvis’ life is in some ways very, very, similar to the basic story of Citizen Kane, and it’s even closer to the life of Orson Welles — a preternaturally talented young man revolutionises an entertainment medium with his early masterpieces, but gets trapped in bad contracts and grows ever fatter and more depressed, while creating occasional further masterpieces mixed with embarrassing hackwork that no artist of his stature should have to create.

So, the basic narrative of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis film can boil down to the following:

The Devil, in the form of Charles Foster Kane, comes to Freddie Freeman and offers him a proposition — he can have all the powers of Captain Marvel, and he will also be rich; he will never have to be poor or hungry again. But what he doesn’t tell Freeman is that in this Faustian pact, Freeman will have to live the life that Kane would have lived. For as long as Freddie Freeman is alive, he will be rich and powerful and beloved, but he will also suffer for Kane’s sins, becoming like the picture in Kane’s attic, and only when Freeman dies will Kane feel once again start to receive consequences for his own
actions.

This is, as one might imagine, a rather richer set of driving metaphors for the story than most Elvis biopics have used, and the result is a far better piece of filmmaking. 

Which is, to be honest, something that is not normally a consideration when it comes to biopics of musicians. I have seen many of these, and I can think of precisely two music biopics that work as films — this and Love and Mercy. In every other case, you could just replace the film with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and nobody would be able to tell the difference — they’re all forcing the narrative into precisely the same structure, and mix characters reciting huge chunks of expository dialogue lifted almost word-for-word from their source material with contrived drama that bears no relation to the musician’s real life.

Now, the script for Luhrmann’s film does definitely do some of the expository dialogue stuff — so much so that I can tell exactly which books Luhrmann and his co-writers were referring to when writing the script (they seem to have read Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis, his biography of Elvis up to 1960, but not bothered with his sequel Careless Love for the post-Army years, switching instead to Alanna Nash’s The Colonel, with possibly a little of Priscilla Presley’s Elvis and Me thrown in). But where most biopics are going for realism, and so characters spouting their biographies at each other makes them seem unrealistic, Luhrmann is going for a heightened reality, both extra-diegetically in that this is an extremely stylised, cartoonish, film, and diegetically in that the entire film is the Colonel’s vision while on a morphine drip in his final hours of life. No attempt is made to pretend that if you had a film camera in Tupelo in 1940 or Memphis in 1955 or LA in 1968 or Las Vegas in 1973, what that camera would have captured is anything like what you see on screen, and so you’re not annoyed when people burst into “as you know, your father the King…” style dialogue.

So it’s successful as a film in ways that are unexpected given the genre, in that it actually is a watchable film. There are still problems which come along with the genre — a friend described it as “the longest trailer in history”, because when you’re condensing a forty-two-year life into two and three quarter hours, you’re essentially going to have to have a highlights reel rather than a narrative, and at the same time it also sags in the middle if you’re not super-invested in Elvis’ life because two and three quarter hours isn’t a long time when compared to someone’s life but it is a long time to sit still in a cinema — but it is a film that works as a piece of cinema in a way that almost all biopics just don’t.

 But is it successful as a film about Elvis?

That is, of course, something that everyone will have to judge for themselves, and in order to give my own perspective, it’s best if people know where I’m coming from, because levels of Elvis fandom vary dramatically. In my case, I’m a serious Elvis fan, but Elvis isn’t one of the central fandoms in my life, and nor am I someone who makes Elvis fandom a defining factor of my identity, in the way some people are. (I was one of those people from the ages of about seven through ten, but I haven’t been for thirty-something years).

To give an idea of where I am in relation to Elvis fandom, there are roughly four lines of Elvis CDs put out by Sony, the company that now owns the rights to all Elvis’ recordings. There’s the stuff that gets heavy promotional pushes and that you find in supermarkets promoted as Christmas gifts or whatever — the latest iteration of the greatest hits compilation, those albums where they get the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to overdub new backing tracks on his old records, the various versions of his Christmas album. 

Then there’s the basic back catalogue stuff that’s sold to what you might call casual fans — major albums like Elvis is Back! and the Aloha From Hawaii live album, the Sun Sessions compilations, the compilation that was done for the documentary The Searcher, that kind of thing. Stuff where if you buy it you’re definitely an Elvis fan by most standards, but you aren’t digging very deep. 

Then there’s the Legacy Editions of his albums — two-to-four disc sets containing albums plus selected outtakes and studio sessions, often paired with contemporary live recordings. A typical example of these is the Legacy Edition of Elvis Today, his last wholly-studio-recorded album, which has the original release of the ten-song album, plus rough mixes of every song before the overdub sessions for the strings and horns and so on, plus a twenty-two-song bonus live album made up of the best recordings from his May/June 1975 tour. These are aimed at serious music listeners, people who are interested in hearing the creative process, but don’t necessarily want to hear every fart and burp from the sessions, just the interesting bits. 

And then there’s Follow That Dream, a collectors’ label devoted only to Elvis recordings, which puts out things like a Girl Happy Sessions CD, for people who think “Do The Clam” or “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” are such masterpieces that they need to hear a comprehensive audio document of the sessions for that film soundtrack, or a Fun in Acapulco Sessions 3-CD set, for anyone who desperately wants nineteen takes of “The Bullfighter Was a Lady” (sadly that set only contains one take of “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”). 

I’m solidly a Legacy Editions-level fan. I find Elvis’ working process fascinating, and love hearing his interplay with musicians (and for most of his career he was working with some of the best musicians in the US, whether the Nashville A-Team, the Wrecking Crew, the American Sound studio group or his own TCB Band), but only when he’s engaged with the material, and I don’t really want to hear the “Yoga is as Yoga Does” sessions any time soon. I own about twenty Elvis films on DVD, but only ever really watch about five of them, and would generally rather stick on Elvis on Tour or That’s The Way it Is than any of the narrative films.

So this means I have, I believe, a good grounding in Elvis’ career, enough to appreciate what Luhrmann is doing, but enough distance that I’m not going to be mortally offended by choices that are made to tell the story better. I’m the kind of fan who knows that when Elvis talks to “Glen” in the rehearsals for his 1969 shows that that’s inaccurate because Glen Hardin didn’t join the TCB Band until the second set of Vegas shows, but who can’t remember off the top of his head who the 1969 piano player was, and who appreciates Hardin getting a shout-out anyway, rather than being annoyed that Larry Muhoberac (I looked him up) doesn’t get namechecked. 

From this perspective, the first thing that needs to be talked about is Austin Butler’s performance. Now, straight away, there are things that are immediately noticeable — Butler simply does not look like Elvis. This is not Butler’s fault — Elvis was a preternaturally attractive human being, so much so that even I, someone who both has no visual aesthetic sense at all and who is extremely straight, a combination which usually means that I literally cannot tell what it is that people find attractive in men, at least see that about Elvis even if I don’t find him attractive myself. Elvis also had a natural charm and magnetism that Butler simply does not have, but which again almost no performers have. 

I’ve seen several people joke on Twitter, “wow, he really does look exactly like Shakin’ Stevens” and… frankly, yeah, he looks quite a lot like Shakin’ Stevens, a man who first rose to prominence playing Elvis in a stage musical, and who copied a great deal of his style from Elvis, but who was fundamentally a more ordinary-looking person. That’s about the best you can hope for in a situation like this, though.

Vocally, though, he has Elvis’ speaking voice down eerily close. He gets the nuances, not just of Elvis’ voice, but of how it changed from one period of his life to another. He manages to do as good an impersonation of Elvis’ speaking voice as I’ve heard, and to give a decent acting performance in that voice, not just do the impersonation.

His singing voice is not quite that close — they use Butler’s voice for scenes set in the 1950s where Elvis is singing, because there were no multitracks for those sessions from which his voice could be isolated. For sixties and seventies scenes, they use the real performances. Now, Butler doesn’t sound exactly like Elvis vocally, but he does sound like a fairly decent Elvis impersonator, like Ronnie McDowell (the man who did the Elvis vocals for most film biopics and TV series about Elvis in the seventies, eighties, and nineties) or Jimmy “Orion” Elvis (who was the source for most of the “Elvis is alive” conspiracy theories, as he performed in an Elvis-esque costume, with a mask covering his face, and publicity that strongly hinted he was the real Elvis who had faked his own death). No-one who’s hugely familiar with the records will mistake him for Elvis, but very casual listeners easily could.

But what really got me is how well he managed to get Elvis’ microexpressions and body language down. Large chunks of this film are recreations of live performances I know very well — there are a lot of shot-for-shot recreations of bits of the 68 Comeback Special, That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour. I’m extremely familiar with those (especially That’s The Way It Is, which is a concert documentary up there with The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense) and Butler nails every single gesture, every micro-expression, every bit of body language — and does so without it looking like he’s recreating something. It’s so close and natural, it makes me think of, of all things, Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which a writer sets out to write the whole of Don Quixote, word for word, identical to the book Cervantes wrote, but as an original piece from his own imagination. (The whole film has a Borgesian quality to it, in fact, in ways it’s hard for me to pin down in a relatively short review).

I’ve mentioned Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, before, and that’s a film which has a number of similarities to this one, but one of them is that both have central performances that capture the person being imitated spookily well, but so spookily that anyone who is not a big fan of the central character won’t realise how good it is, because it just looks like naturalistic acting. John Cusack is Brian Wilson in the eighties sections of Love and Mercy, and in the same way Austin Butler is Elvis at points. I’ve seen several people talking about this as an Oscar-worthy performance, and it is, but I don’t think it will get the recognition it deserves. Because if you see Butler as Elvis in a jumpsuit goofing around on stage doing karate moves, or dancing to the drummer, you just think “that’s someone doing Elvisy stuff” — it’s what you expect from a performance by someone playing Elvis. It’s only if you’re intimately familiar with the footage being imitated that you think “ah, yes, and now he’s going to gesture with his little finger” and then see him gesture with his little finger, or whatever. 

I think what Butler does at points is comparable in his use of facial microexpressions and details of body language to what Tatiana Maslany does in Orphan Black. There’s no higher praise possible.

But I do have some critiques of the film, and one of them connects to the other major performer in the film, so let’s talk about Tom Hanks for a bit. Now, I’ve seen Hanks’ performance come in for some criticism, and I think for the most part that’s rather undeserved. Hanks isn’t playing the real Colonel Tom Parker, but he is absolutely doing a good job of playing a real-life embodiment of absolute evil, someone very, very, different from the kind of character with which he has made his name in the past. The accent is unrealistic at points, but it’s meant to be how the Colonel remembered events while on morphine, and it’s entirely plausible that he would remember himself as speaking with a stronger accent than he really did.

My problem, rather, is with the fat-suit he wears. Quite simply, we should not be making thin people look like fat people, rather than just casting fat people in those roles. It makes sense that they do this with Butler at the very end of the film — Elvis’ weight changed dramatically over the decades he was in the public eye, and you can’t have the same actor play him at every weight without some form of prosthetics. But it’s disrespectful to actual fat people to cast thin people in roles where they have to be made up as fat throughout. 

I have to admit that I couldn’t think of anyone of the appropriate size who could have played the part and who was well-known enough to be cast in the role — which is a problem in itself — but then I was talking on the phone with my ex, who mentioned John Goodman, and Goodman would actually have been perfect casting for the role. Not only is he the right body type already, but he is very, very, capable of playing Satanic characters who can go from being utterly charming sales people with the gift of gab to being utter monsters — his performances in Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are very much the kind of performance Hanks is giving.

I suspect that the studio insisted on a star of Hanks’ calibre before approving the film, and he does do a fine job, but it’s a shame. It didn’t spoil the film for me though.

But it adds to a general air of… awkwardness… around size and body type in the film, which I felt most keenly when watching the actor cast as Big Mama Thornton. Willie Mae Thornton was very fat, and that was a defining part of her presence, and also a big reason why she was never as successful as she deserved to be, and the actor cast in that role simply doesn’t look anything like her. Oddly, the actor cast as Sister Rosetta Tharpe does look quite like Thornton, and the problem could have been solved by swapping the casting around — Tharpe was also fat for most of her life, but not in the same defining way as Thornton was, and she was relatively slender during the 1940s.

And that leads into the other major issue I have with the film, race — and here I think there were absolutely no good options for how to deal with this, and Luhrmann chooses the least bad option. 

Any honest film about Elvis has to deal with the perception that he stole Black people’s music. Now, that perception is simply false — there is an argument to be made that he was culturally appropriative, but even that’s more nuanced than one might expect, but the common Twitter take is that Elvis just stole a bunch of Black people’s songs, which is flat-out untrue.

But what is true is that a lot of Black musicians influenced him a great deal — musicians portrayed in the film, like Mahalia Jackson, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King, Little Richard, Arthur Crudup, Rufus Thomas, and Fats Domino, and musicians who are not portrayed in the film like the Ink Spots, Roy Hamilton, and Chuck Berry. (A tiny bit of silent footage of Berry is seen in the film, but he’s not named and I don’t think we hear any of his music, though I could be misremembering). 

Now, the film makes what I think is the correct choice to portray that influence, and indeed to overemphasise it to an extent — watching the film you would think that the only music Elvis liked was Black blues and gospel, when in fact he was a voracious listener to all kinds of music, and loved what is euphemistically called Southern Gospel (by which is meant gospel made by white people), country music (especially Red Foley and the Louvin Brothers), mainstream pop singers like Dean Martin and Kay Starr, and the light opera of Mario Lanza. None of that is mentioned in the film except in the most roundabout of ways, but I think that’s a reasonable position.

The problem is, it’s still a film centred around a white man, and he’s the protagonist of the story, so all the Black characters are relegated to the fringes of the story. On top of that, Luhrmann is a very stylised, hyper-real, filmmaker, and so his portrayals of Black culture tend to caricature and possibly almost to minstrelsy, in the same way as, say, the Black characters in The Blues Brothers (another film I love which has a well-meaning but problematic attitude to Black culture and music, and to which this also bears some resemblance).


Most of the Black characters aren’t characters at all — they’re just there as musical influences, which is fair enough as I think there are in total ten characters who count as characters in any real way at all — Elvis, the Colonel, Elvis’ parents, Priscilla, Steve Binder (the producer of the 68 Comeback Special), Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers Snow, Senator Jim Eastland and B.B. King. And there’s a huge gap between Elvis, the Colonel, and Elvis’ parents and the other five characters. By being given big musical sequences, the Black characters are still given more screen time and more characterisation than anyone other than the Colonel who didn’t have the surname Presley.

But still, this does mean that these figures are marginalised in the story of a white man. And the problem becomes worse with B.B. King, the only Black character to get a significant speaking role. The nature of a film like this means that every character becomes either an antagonist (like the white supremacist Senator Eastland, or Hank Snow, who is rather unfairly portrayed here) or a source of emotional support for the protagonist, and in the case of King, who knew Elvis in his early years when he was just starting out, that means his role is to give him a couple of pep talks, which basically turns him into what Spike Lee refers to as a “Magical Negro”, the Black character who is better and wiser than the white person he advises and solves the white character’s important problems. 

Now, again, I see no better possibility for dealing with this while still doing a film about Elvis. You have the choice of either not acknowledging Black musicians at all, or of marginalising them and thus reproducing in part the injustices that led to them being marginalised in pop culture in the first place. As I know all too well from doing my own podcast, it is literally impossible to do even the most well-intentioned look at the major pop-cultural figures of rock music history, and comment on the factors that led to the rise of white stars well above the Black musicians who influenced them, without reproducing that historical injustice at least somewhat. All one can do is be aware of that, and I think the film does, at least as much as any mainstream Hollywood film can.

The final issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t engage, at all, with the fact that Priscilla Presley was only fourteen when Elvis, who was twenty-four, started dating her. Now, I can completely understand the desire not to touch that with a bargepole, because whatever excuses one makes, the fact is that this is what we would now call grooming, and it’s the single most distasteful and reprehensible thing about Elvis’ life (and something I’m going to have to try to deal with myself in an upcoming podcast episode). People aren’t defined by their worst actions any more than they are by their best, and I can see how it would both completely unbalance the film to deal with it and it would cause more than a little discomfort to Priscilla (who is still alive and was by all accounts very involved in the film, and who doesn’t from her public statements consider herself to have been abused, which makes the issue all the thornier), but given that part of the point of the film seems to have been to rehabilitate Elvis’ reputation in the social media age, and the two big problems with that reputation are “he stole Black people’s music” and “he was a paedophile”, I think it would have been much better to face the issue head on. 

This is another thing that has to be dealt with when dealing with most of the major male stars of the middle of the last century, and is sadly another way that any film positioning one of them as the protagonist is bound to reproduce social injustices. Real people are complicated and messy and do awful, even unforgivable, things which are accepted in their society, in a way that isn’t — that can’t be — true of protagonists of this kind of narrative.

All of which sounds like I think the film was bad. I very much don’t. I think it’s a film that appeals more to actual Elvis fans than it will to non-fans, but I think non-fans will get some enjoyment out of it. I went to see the film twice, the second time with someone who’s not a fan but who was interested. She enjoyed it but got a little restless around the two hour mark, and some of the criticisms I’ve made affected her more than they do me, but she was still glad she saw it. 

For me, the thing that the film gets very, very, very right, which almost overwhelms all my other criticisms of it, is the way it — for the first and only time in one of these fictionalised versions of Elvis’ life — portrays Elvis as a creative artist, not merely as some sort of passive vessel through which the spirit of rock and roll moved or something, and in particular the way it portrays the Las Vegas shows not as some sort of descent into terrible music, but as a culmination of Elvis’ creative life. The scenes of him pulling together the arrangements, directing the musicians, are astonishing. Some of them are repurposed from documentary footage — a lot of the Vegas years film is shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour, sometimes occasionally with a sneaky bit of real footage thrown in for a couple of frames — while other bits aren’t things I recognise, but absolutely have the ring of real behaviour. 

What you get from this film is the same reading of the Vegas years that I have — that even while everything in Elvis’ personal life was deteriorating, even while he was being forced to play far more shows than he wanted to play, and was losing interest in the performance side of things, he was absolutely in control of the band, and of his music, and was making music he loved. Watching Butler as Elvis interacting with the actor playing Ronnie Tutt, the film perfectly replicating the way that Tutt took direction from Elvis’ movements, is an absolute joy to behold.

And then there’s the ending, and this sums up what I think the film got very, very right. There’s a piece of footage of Elvis on his last tour, singing “Unchained Melody”, which I have spoken about a lot in the past. It’s a bit of footage most Elvis fans know, but few outside the fandom are aware of. I’ve written about it before on here, but I linked to it on my podcast’s Twitter account in a thread in February. I won’t reproduce the whole thread here, but it’s about how Elvis was clearly physically broken but still giving his all in the performance and showing the utter triumph of overcoming his weakened body to make great music. I ended the thread with “I honestly think that if the Elvis estate want to make Elvis seem relevant to anyone under about sixty, that is the footage they should be using. Like I say, it’s like Johnny Cash doing “Hurt”. And I get chills every time I see it.”

A couple of months after I tweeted that, the trailer for Luhrmann’s film dropped, and it used that performance in the soundtrack. And then in the film itself, to end the film they reproduce the first half of that performance with Butler, then cut away to some archive footage of the real Elvis, then cut back to the end of that performance, footage of the real man the film has been about. It works astonishingly in the film, and it’s exactly the choice I would have made.

And that, ultimately, is why I’ve focused so much on the things I wouldn’t have done here. Because a lot of the choices this film makes are exactly the ones I would have made if I were a big-budget filmmaker. The film is so laser-focused on my personal interests that I can’t be objective about it — Orson Welles! Seventies Elvis! Old superhero comics! Sister Rosetta Tharpe!

It’s the best possible film I can imagine being made about its subject. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man living in a flawed society, and its flaws are those that come from making a film about that topic at all. I’ve certainly been guilty of similar flaws in my own podcasts and writing on Elvis (not the same flaws, because they’re different media, and there’s no such thing as a story outside of the medium in which it’s told, which shapes everything, but comparable ones).

As for Elvis himself… He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?

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Forgotten Lives

Today I received an email with the final finished version of this, so thought today would be a good day to tell people about it. Forgotten Lives is an unofficial Doctor Who anthology, not licensed by the BBC but with all proceeds going to Alzheimer’s research.

It’s published by Obverse Books, and features the adventures of the Morbius Doctors — the Doctors before William Hartnell, whose faces were seen in the Tom Baker story The Brain of Morbius and more recently in the Jodie Whitaker story The Timeless Children.

Obverse Books, for those of you who don’t know, is a small press that specialises in Doctor Who spinoffs and non-fiction about science fiction TV — they’ve previously published a novel, two nonfiction books, two short stories, and some contributions to other charity anthologies by me. As well as my own story, “The Cross of Venus”, the book contains stories by Simon Bucher-Jones, Philip Purser-Hallard (who edited), Kara Dennison, Lance Parkin, Aditya Bidakar, Jay Eales, and Paul Driscoll. All of these are excellent writers, and most of them are friends or at least friendly online acquaintances of mine. All gave their stories for free.

There’s only a single print-run, and only a handful of copies are left, so go to https://obversebooks.co.uk/product/forgotten/ if you don’t want to miss out.

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Why I Think Elvis Was Autistic

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for several years, but it’s one that’s fraught with difficulties, because I’m going to attempt here to apply a label to a historical figure, and specifically a label that is often medicalised.

There is a big taboo about applying diagnostic labels to people one hasn’t met, and for good reason — too often this is used as a way of simultaneously reducing the person you’re talking about to a medical label, and it’s also often a way to increase stigma against an innocent group. I’ve seen a lot of people, for example, claim that Donald Trump has dementia and that explains aspects of his Presidency. But there are tens of millions of people in the world with dementia, none of whom are Donald Trump. Unless you’re Trump’s doctor, statements about his health are there to serve a political agenda, not to provide accurate information.

But in the case of neurodivergence, I think there’s an important purpose that is served by highlighting historical figures who one thinks may have been neurodivergent. Almost every month we see a new film or TV series, created by neurotypicals, presenting stereotypes of autism in particular. Those stereotypes lead to many, many people going without diagnosis, because they believe that autism is something very different from their own experiences. The stereotypes also lead to the murder of many autistic people.

To get past those stereotypes, we need to show real autistic people’s lives. But there’s a problem with that — autism is a relatively new diagnosis, and even for the first few decades of its existence it was underdiagnosed in children and not diagnosed at all in adults. I’m autistic, I’ve known I was autistic since I was sixteen, but I couldn’t get a formal diagnosis until this year — I’m forty-two.

Autism is still underdiagnosed, especially in women and people of colour, but that goes even more for anyone born before 1990 or so. Basically, no autistic people born before then have ever been diagnosed. But we have always existed, and it’s important that people understand that.

But there’s a problem with identifying historical autistic people, and that problem is another one that affects people today. The official diagnostic criteria for autism are created by neurotypical people, and speak entirely in terms of deficiencies. While it’s true that autism is disabling, it’s also true that most of the ways that autistic people experience autism, and most of the things we consider important about our lives, are not captured by those diagnostic tests.

And that means I can expect two different reactions to this. I expect most neurotypical people reading this to react in much the same way as historians do when faced with two women writing love letters to each other, living together, referring to each other as their wife, and asking to be buried together — in most cases like that, you end up with the historians saying “what an inspiring example of gals being pals! This purely platonic friendship between two heterosexual women just shows how close friends who happen not to have got married for some reason can become!”

In the same way, I expect most people reading this to say “most of those are things that could apply to anyone! You’ve not presented any evidence that Elvis was actually autistic!”

But I expect any autistic person reading this who has spent time in the wider autistic community to say “My God! That’s the most autistic person to ever have autisticed!” or words very much to that effect.

(A note here, BTW — I think Elvis would most likely get a diagnosis of autism were he to be diagnosed today, but autism overlaps with, and is often co-occurring with, a lot of other neurodivergences, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD. There is some debate as to whether these are the same thing manifesting in different ways, or things that tend to cluster together but can occur separately, so it’s possible that Elvis wasn’t autistic but was dyspraxic and ADHD, or whatever.)

The thing that clued me in to Elvis’ neurodivergence, that unlocked this for me, was Sam Phillips talking about signing Elvis. Phillips is often quoted as having wanted “a white man who can sing like a Black man”, but when you listen to the earliest recordings of Elvis, there’s no sensible way anyone could have thought of him that way. What Phillips *actually* said was that “his insecurity was so markedly like that of a Black person.” In particular, in the South at that point, Black people didn’t look white people in the eye. Nor did Elvis.

Both Phillips and Carl Perkins said that Elvis was the most introverted person ever to enter a recording studio, in more or less those exact words.

As a young man, Elvis had very few real friends. He was extremely close to his parents, especially his mother, with whom he almost had a private language and could communicate in a way he couldn’t with anyone else, but had difficulty making friends his own age. He would often hang out with people like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who lived nearby. They would bully him, but they’d let him stand on the edge of the group and sing when they were singing.

Later in life, Elvis would surround himself with the “Memphis Mafia”, a group of people to whom he was intensely loyal, even though they were mostly taking advantage of him.

Elvis was known for being constantly in movement, fingers twitching and legs tapping all the time.

He was extremely poor at emotional regulation, and could swing wildly in mood.

He was a very naturally talented actor, who could lose himself in a role (though he was never given the chance to grow).

Before becoming a singer, he worked for a time as an electrician, but he was very bad at it. He kept giving himself electric shocks, and once said it was a miracle none of the houses he worked on had burned down.

He was very into martial arts, which he liked because it allowed him a sense of control over his body.

Some of his stage costumes in the seventies were patterned on his favourite comic-book character, Captain Marvel Jr.

He was a voracious reader and would bring three trunks filled with books on tour with him.

His famous hip-shaking actually started as nerves — he was trembling the first time he was on stage, and it made his baggy trouser legs shake, which the audience took as intentional.

He watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail thirty-five times, and could quote it from memory. He was also a particular fan of Peter Sellers.

He had a highly restricted diet, and had specific issues with textures — food had to be prepared a particular way, with bacon almost burned and eggs hard, and he would eat particular combinations of food many other people found disgusting. People to this day mock him for his taste for peanut-butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches.

He had real problems with sleeping — he was naturally nocturnal, and often had to rely on medical help to get onto a somewhat-diurnal schedule. Even with pharmaceutical help he rarely slept more than three hours at a time.

He had bad skin — the thing people note most about him as a young man was that he had terrible acne on his neck.

He had a near-photographic memory, and would learn and retain a song after hearing it only once. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music.

And perhaps most importantly, for much of the last few years of his life he was chronically ill but didn’t present that way. The prescription drug use for which he became notorious after his death was a combination of things to treat his sleep problems, and pain medication. The thing that eventually killed him was not his lifestyle, as reported — he had a variety of genetic, stress-related, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions which made him put on weight, including the hypertension that led to his eventual heart attack. These seem to have been inherited from his mother (who also died in her forties). Again, it’s not a formal diagnostic criterion of autism that one has autoimmune problems, but anecdotally the *vast* majority of autistic people have them (there’s a reason the average life expectancy for an autistic person is fifty-four).

But the pain medication… Elvis told his doctors, for years, that he was in a huge amount of pain. They thought he was faking, because he didn’t “act like” someone in pain — they thought he was after drugs. So sometimes he was prescribed real opiates, but other times he would be given placebos, made to look like the drugs that worked. When those didn’t work, he took more of them, so when he got the real stuff he took more than he should, which made the doctors believe he was just after drugs… 

After his death, when those same doctors re-examined X-rays of him, it was obvious he had arthritis, and had really been in unspeakable agony for years. But he’d just not seemed like he was in pain to the doctors. He didn’t act how a person in pain “should” act.

Again, nobody who isn’t neurodivergent will read the above and be convinced. But I think if you’ve any experience of the neurodivergent community, you’re going to read that, and come to the same conclusion as me.

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A DVD A Day: Doctor Who — Castrovalva

I forgot to post this one yesterday, so I’m already not living up to the title…

Castrovalva is the first Doctor Who story featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, and for the first time in one of these DVDs I’ve come across something that I have quite a bit to say about.

While it was the first story of season nineteen, it has always felt to me like it was the last story of season eighteen. There are a number of reasons for that — one is that it follows directly on from the last scene of Logopolis, Tom Baker’s last story, whose ending it reprises before the credits. Another is that it was the ending of a loose trilogy (what Alex Wilcock calls The Master’s Doctor Plan) which started with The Keeper of Traken, the story before Logopolis, and all three of them are packaged together in the same DVD set (though with the new move towards making everything into season Blu-Rays, I wonder how the next generation of fans will view these).

But the most important reason is that this story is written by Christopher H Bidmead, who had been the script editor for season eighteen, had written Logopolis, and had been the principal creative force behind that oddest of seasons generally.

There is a lot to say about Bidmead, but perhaps the most telling is that he is the epitome of the creative artist who doesn’t understand his own work. In every interview, Bidmead talks about how he wanted to make Doctor Who into hard science fiction which taught kids about real scientific ideas, and which was firmly grounded in reality, not in fantasy. Instead, his season takes us through episodes on lizard Mafiosi, talking cacti and the mystical powers of Platonic solids, Lamarckianism, Hammer horror pastiche vampires, magic mirrors and the I Ching in a story that’s half Cocteau pastiche and half Adam Ant video, a Shakespearean riff on the idea of the Great Chain of Being, and then finally a world of monks whose chanting holds the universe together.

This from a man who thought that he was making something educational about science.

The scripts in season eighteen tend to hang together even less well as plots than some of those in the previous few seasons, yet what they do have is a tremendous thematic resonance. Whatever their ostensible writers, they all keep coming back to the same few themes — hidden knowledge from the past returning and upending a society; appearances not being what they seem; duplicates of people (so many duplicates); entropy and decay; worlds that operate according to pre-scientific philosophical worldviews; and recursion.

These motifs keep coming back in different forms, and so in Meglos for example the Doctor has a lookalike that’s a giant cactus, while in Logopolis there are multiple versions of the Doctor going round, and most of them seem to be tied to a particular late-seventies/early-eighties aesthetic, a post-hippie version of reality which is trying to decide whether the universe is really a giant computer, or if it’s a creation of our own consciousness, or both simultaneously. The reference points here are things like Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson, The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, and many other books which try in some way or another to unify quantum physics, parapsychology, cybernetics, and Eastern mysticism (the particular variety of Eastern doesn’t really matter, in this view — Buddhism, Taoism, whatever, it’s all that Ancient Eastern Wisdom stuff).

(I sound dismissive, but I actually have a lot of time for that kind of thing — those books are often very wrong, and a bit mush-headed, but they’re also the product of people trying to think about important questions and trying to use every tool available in their toolkit to find answers. When they’re wrong, they’re interestingly wrong, and occasionally they’re right.)

Another book that got read by the same people who read those books was Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter — a book which tries to use parables containing Alice in Wonderland characters, art by Escher, and discussion of some music by Bach, to try to explain Godel’s theorem, and also to put forward Hofstadter’s own hypothesis about one of those big questions — in this case, his belief that consciousness can be explained as a form of recursion.

Bidmead seems to have latched on to this book, and in particular to the Escher stuff, which appealed to his own aesthetic sense. Because one other thing about season eighteen that doesn’t get pointed out quite as often as those themes is that it’s often a season that’s explicitly about the spaces its characters inhabit, and that’s driven as much by the sets as by the characters — the sets tend (in the most Bidmeadesque episodes) to be reifications of the story’s themes. The logic of a lot of Bidmead’s stories is the place where the logics of early Doctor Who and of text adventure games meet. They’re all about exploring a physical space more than interacting with characters as such, and the exploration of the space leads to revelation of the story’s underlying plot.

And given that Escher, of course, drew impossible, recursive, spaces in his images, that made his work the perfect subject for a Bidmead story. And so we have Castrovalva, named after one of Escher’s etchings, but with a central revelation that comes straight from another one — the space in which the second half of the story takes place is modelled on Ascending and Descending.

The recursive space our protagonists are in turns out to have been created by the Master, using a kind of computation whose name Bidmead nicked from the instruction set of the Z80 microprocessor, but which in-story can only be performed by living minds — precisely the kind of quantum mysticism that all those books talk about (and which seems to have no basis in reality, given that to the extent that the human brain is a computer there’s no evidence that it’s not just a normal Turing machine rather than a quantum computer). The Master plants precisely the kind of false history we’ve seen time and again in the Bidmead-shaped stories previously, and everything in the story works towards a single aesthetic aim.

My favourite Doctor Who has always been the times when it seems to be grasping towards being about something much bigger than itself — that’s one reason I’m such a fan of the Faction Paradox series, which amplifies that tendency. It’s only occasionally done so on screen, and those are some of the oddest stories, the ones that can stand up most to repeated viewings — Evil of the Daleks, The Mind Robber, The Space Museum, The Deadly Assassin, Shada, Vengeance on Varos. There are only a small number of creators who seemed to view the series as something that could do this kind of thing — David Whitaker, Bob Holmes, Douglas Adams, and David Maloney seem to be the principal ones — and Chris Bidmead was the last one to do it consistently.

Many of the stories with which Bidmead was involved ended up not being very good, and if you ask him what he was trying to do, what he *thought* he was doing was something I would have no time for at all. But when you look at this, or Logopolis, you see something almost visionary, something I miss in later incarnations of the series.

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A DVD A Day: The Wrong Box

There’s a type of late-sixties British comedy film for which I have a fondness that is out of all proportion to its actual merits — films which are sort of a lower-budget and slightly more hippyish equivalent of American films like It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World. In these films, which generally have either Peter Sellers or Peter Cook in, a large cast of immensely funny people is used in place of a coherent script or any kind of real filmmaking ability. Examples include Casino Royale and The Magic Christian, but there are absolutely loads of these things.

The Wrong Box is one of the earliest examples of this kind of film, and thus the most coherent. Where most of these films have troubled productions, with directors and screenwriters getting sacked, and the star doing a runner halfway through the film (so for Casino Royale, for example, there are six directors and half of Peter Sellers’ scenes were never even filmed) this one has only one director and two writers, and has a plot that hangs together well — it’s a dark farce, based around people competing to be the heirs to a tontine — a sort of lottery in which several people put in a stake and the last one alive gets the lot.

It’s also one of the few of these films to actually feature people known as serious actors in the main roles — the two elderly brothers who are the last two heirs are played by Ralph Richardson and John Mills (and Richardson in particular is very good indeed as an oblivious old buffer who annoys everyone around him) while the hero and heroine are played by Michael Caine and Nanette Newman, both of whom unfortunately do the thing that straight actors often do when appearing in a comedy, of playing the roles just a little too broadly.

But the rest of the cast contains… well, it contains everyone you might think of for a British comedy in 1966. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore play the bumbling villains (and sadly, as is always the case when given a script he didn’t write himself, Cook is not on his best form — he’s still funny, but you wouldn’t believe from watching this that many people consider him to be the funniest man who ever lived), but the film also features Tony Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Leonard Rossiter, Irene Handl, John Junkin, Norman Rossington, Peter Sellers (in a relatively small but film-stealing role as an incompetent drunken doctor), Graham Stark (because Peter Sellers is in the film so of course Stark is), Nicholas Parsons… plus a few other character actors not usually known for comedy roles, like Tutte Lemkow, Dame Cicely Cortneidge, and Valentine Dyall. Basically every single person in the film, even if they’re only in it for a few seconds, is someone who’s always worth watching.

Plot-wise, it’s a rather conventional farce — two brothers, both of whom stand to inherit, live next door to each other and haven’t spoken in decades, someone else dies while wearing the coat of one of the brothers, mistaken identities, mistaken deaths, and general hijinks ensue as his heirs try to cover up the death, and then in the end the innocent heirs of the two brothers get engaged, meaning they’ll end up with all the money whoever inherits it.

The film actually inhabits a sort of halfway house between the earlier Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies (there’s more than a hint of Kind Hearts and Coronets about it, though Kind Hearts is the much better film) and the Casino Royale type — the start, with the montage of accidental deaths, is straight out of Ealing, while the big chase scene at the end (with multiple horse-drawn hearses chasing each other around a crossroads while a workman sits in the middle, is more than a little reminiscent of the car chase scenes in every Pink Panther film (including the first one, which preceded this by a few years).

The film has few standout laugh-out-loud moments (my personal favourite is Sellers blotting a death certificate with a kitten), but it’s probably the most watchable film of its type, if you’re someone who, unlike me, didn’t have their aesthetic senses warped at a young age by too much exposure to third-rate Sellers vehicles like After The Fox. I’m quite surprised it’s never been remade as a big-budget Hollywood film — you could quite easily pitch it as “It’s Weekend at Bernie’s meets Ocean’s Eleven”, and the Victorian novel it’s based on is firmly in the public domain. But as it is, it’s a pleasant, if unremarkable, period piece.

The DVD (at least the version I own), incidentally, is the most bare-bones one I’ve ever seen. You know those DVDs that mention “menu” as a special feature? That’s because of DVDs like this one, which doesn’t even have that.

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