by Steve Wagner
As we all know, Elvis never really left the building. Fully deified by the end of the 1950s, Presley is the original mythic archetype of the “rock star,” and his image, music, and influence is still ubiquitous in western culture. Elvis would have turned 80 on January 8th, and beyond the somewhat scary proposition of actually imagining what that might have looked like, it is time for a tip of the hat and a curl of the lip in honor of the legendary “Trucker from Tupelo.”
For those who want to get really Elvish today, I suggest you watch this incredible, and yet very under-the-radar, film: Elvis Meets Nixon. A dramatization of the hard-to-believe and endlessly ironic true-life meeting between the two cultural icons, Elvis Meets Nixon is a devilishly clever film that revels in each man’s peculiar dysfunction (bordering on insanity), and yet somehow manages to give us perhaps the most honest glimpse yet inside Presley’s tortured psyche.
Produced by LionsGate as a “Showtime Original” in 1997, the film stars the wonderful stage and screen character actor Bob Gunton as Richard Nixon, and workingman television actor Rick Peters (Veronica Mars, Swingtown, Dexter) as Elvis Presley. Gunton is always solid, and his Nixon is paranoid pitch-perfect here, jittery and grandiose and just plain sad as he tries to connect with Presley.
Peters, however, is the revelation here. He not only creates the most indelible Elvis since Kurt Russell, he transforms what could have been a comic sketch into a deeply sympathetic, multi-dimensional character. His Elvis is a hysterical cartoon teddy bear with chocolate bars, amphetamine, and loaded pistols, and yet, he is completely believable as the real Elvis.
The icing on the cake is the uniquely subversive tone the film employs, cutting from the dramatization to interviews with friends, fans, and media commentators (Wayne Newton, Tony Curtis, Dick Cavett, Edwin Neuman, Graham Nash) to provide context and clever quips. Oh, and Elvis’ dad Vernon is played by Denny Doherty of the Mamas and the Papas, which somehow makes perfect sense, because this film just could not be any more surreal than the actual events it is based on.
Elvis Meets Nixon is based on a true story, but it is a story that feels like fiction, like something Quentin Tarrantino would cook up on an acid trip at the Rock & Roll Cafe. Synopsis: Christmas 1970. A depressed and seriously medicated (and heavily-armed) Elvis leaves Graceland, traveling on his own for the first time in fifteen years.
He flies, by himself, on a commercial flight to Washington DC, where he meets with crumbling President Richard Nixon in the oval office and begs to be made a secret under-cover DEA agent for the United States government. Nixon placates him with a fake/real badge and they pose for cameras while both of their entourages stare at them in disbelief.
Yep, that’s pretty much what happened for real, and Elvis Meets Nixon tells the story with style and panache, delivering big laughs along with biting social commentary. It’s one of the best Elvis movies you’ll ever see, and it is one of the best comedies of the 90s as well. I watch this film every year to celebrate the birth of the King.
For those who want to go even deeper, check out this interview with two guys who were there and watched it go down in person: Nixon attorney Egil “Bud” Krogh and longtime Elvis buddy and music industry vet Jerry Schilling. Their memories of the day Elvis met Nixon are every bit as funny, probing, and wistful as one would expect from someone who witnessed something that bizarre. Face it, whether you like Elvis or Nixon or not, with this kind of material, you just can’t go wrong.