Bubba Ho-Tep and the Elvis Everywhere Phenomenon
One sign of the enduring legend of Elvis Presley is the fact that he's everywhere. Elvis movies are played regularly on cable TV, books devoted to his life make the bestsellers lists and re-issues of his music top the charts here and overseas. It seems that Elvis is not only an artistic giant, he's become a pop-culture phenomenon. However, the pop-culture phenom we see these days is hardly a flattering portrayal of the King of Rock and Roll. My case in point: the recently released (on DVD) movie of Bubba Ho-Tep.
Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of aging Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff (played to the hilt by Bruce Campbell), a nursing home resident who thinks he's really Elvis. Haff believes that he's the real Elvis, who changed places with Sebastian Haff, an Elvis impersonator, in order to escape the problems associated with being the biggest star in the world. While touring the country as Sebastian Haff, he falls off the stage, breaks a hip, winds up in a coma for weeks and eventually lands in a nursing home in Texas. Haff/Elvis (we never really know for sure who he is) is fat, morose, has a growth on his male organ and can get around only with the aid of a walker. His best friend is a black inmate (played by Ossie Davis) who thinks he's JFK, only he's been dyed black in an effort to undermine his return to the presidency. Confused yet? Just wait.
Now throw into the mix a reincarnated Egyptian mummy who can only stay alive by feeding on the souls of the living, killing them in the meanwhile. This mummy shows up at Elvis' rest home and starts rapidly depleting the number of inmates. Elvis and JFK decide to save their rest home and rid themselves of the mummified invader
The Elvis of this movie is typical of the Elvis we see frequently in the media these days. The Elvis of this movie is not the young, vibrant Elvis of the 50's and 60's. Rather, he's the paunchy, drug-addled 70's version, the version that gave in to excess and gaudy Las Vegas style living, and that's the Elvis we see spoofed on TV, in movies and in the papers today.
Now, what happened? Somewhere along the way to becoming canonized, Elvis derailed. He died face down in his bathroom in the middle of the night with a veritable pharmacy of drugs swirling in his bloodstream, and this drastically changed his legacy. Instead of being honored, he's made fun of and his life is held up to people as a perfect example of wretched excess and riotous living.
I participated in some of this myself. Years ago I was asked by the local head of the United Way if I would participate in a fundraiser of theirs by making a surprise appearance as The King. She would supply an Elvis suit if I would drop in during the fundraiser, smile and wave and entertain the crowd for a minute. I had some grave misgivings, but she was a friend of mine, and since I've always been something of a ham, I agreed to do it.
I popped in that night dressed in a gaudy, Las Vegas-style Elvis suit, complete with a box of chicken in my hand and a banana hanging out of my back pocket. My gut sagged over the wide belt that encircled my waist and as I waddled around, I waved, kung-fu'ed across the stage and, of course, did a thank-you-verra-much routine. The crowd loved it, and to this very day I get Elvis memorabilia from people who saw that performance over ten years ago.
It's that Elvis — the drunken, obese, skirt-chasing Elvis, that is remembered most these days it seems. Elvis has become synonymous with excess in all things, especially drugs and food. The swivel-hipped King of Rock and Roll has been replaced with a paunchy, sweating stoner who needed a trip first to the fat farm and then to a drying-out clinic. His contributions to our world — the numerous top-40 hits, the shattering of stereotypes, the popularization of black and gospel music — are in many cases overshadowed by the wretched parody of himself he had become at the end.
There's a cautionary tale here somewhere, I think. It's said that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Elvis was certainly one who wielded power. He could, it seems, buy anything he wanted — food, women, drugs, friends — but he couldn't buy happiness and peace of mind, and this, I think, more than anything else killed him.
When I remember The King, I try to remember him as the lean, lithe, dangerous looking cat who wowed us in his comeback show during the late 60's. I remember the guy who loved his mom, who said yes sir and no sir, who was generous to his friends and employees. I remember the young Elvis. Because of this, I can forgive him anything — even the movies he made. Wherever you are today Elvis, I hope you've found a measure of happiness and some peace of mind. Thank-you-verra-much.