Posts Tagged ‘Elvis’

I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis,Tennessee
Paul Simon/Graceland

“Elvis loved his John Deere [tractor].”
Elvis’ Aunt


Graceland Wall #1

I’m fascinated that people are fascinated by Elvis. And though touring inside Graceland was never really on my bucket list, I was glad to have the opportunity to explore the famous Memphis home of The King of Rock-n-Roll on Tuesday. Sure it’s gaudy in places (green shag carpet on the floor—and even the ceiling— in the jungle room) but this was Elvis of the ’70s. More Vegas than Memphis.

Elvis pool room

Elvis living room

And while in today’s scope the house and grounds seem modest for a star. Perhaps that’s because last year I did that shoot at NFL great Deion Sanders’ 28,000+ sq. foot Dallas home (on 100 acres).  In one sense touring Graceland is like looking at the first 8-track player in a museum. You think, “I’m sure that was state of the art back in the day, but it doesn’t look that amazing now.”

Then you realize that Elvis bought the house when he was just 22-years-old, and just a few years before that he was living in public housing and boarding houses with his parents—and that can give you a fresh perspective. From his first hit until his death in 1977, Graceland was home. (Even though he lived in Beverly Hills during his moviemaking days, he always called Memphis and Graceland home.)  Now it’s kitsch heaven with a gift store at every turn, with everything you can buy from Elvis mugs and t-shirts to Elvis Christmas ornaments and wallets.

But what I’ll always appreciate about Elvis was his talent, his energy, and his music.  In touring Graceland and getting a sweeping overview of his life I think the real fascination I have with Elvis is that question, “What do you do after you’ve accomplished all your grand dreams?” (Or in Elvis’ case where he said he had realized his dream 100 times over.) Then what happens? After all the money, fame, and women, Elvis headed down a destructive path and didn’t live long enough to reinvent himself.

When Elvis toured in the final year of his life he was overweight and out of shape, no longer the movie star, was playing much smaller musical venues than just a few years earlier, and addicted to prescription drugs. When Elvis died at age 42, if various reports are true, he was not a man at peace with his great accomplishments.

But time has been good to the memory of Elvis. His iconic statue is intact. Thankfully he’s remembered for his music, his generosity, and for being the single best-selling musician of all time.  And more fascinating to me than touring inside Graceland is the wall outside Graceland. And it’s free. In fact, you don’t even have to pay for parking. They have a lane dedicated on Elvis Presley Blvd. where you can park and sign the wall and take a few pictures.

Elvis wall

I did learn one interesting fact on the tour that has a nice Iowa connection. In the section where they have some of Elvis’ cars they have a John Deere tractor. A video said that it was one of his favorite toys. The tractor was used for many years to take care of the beautiful grounds at Graceland. The video also made a point of saying that the John Deere tractor was made at Waterloo Works in Waterloo, Iowa.

I started writing this blog is 2008 about ten miles from that factory. This post is just one more example of embracing your limitations and seeing the unusual places it takes you.

Elvis tractor

What did we do before the internet? Here’s some rare footage of Elvis and what looks like an International Harvester tractor. (Elvis spread the love around and didn’t limit himself to Pink Cadillacs and green tractors.)

P.S. Found out that the Elvis tractor was restored by students at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi. (Article: Restoring Elvis’ tractor.)

Related post:

“God is the Bigger Elvis”

Scott W. Smith

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When I was walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Marc Cohn/Walking in Memphis

BealeStreetLate Monday night I stopped in Memphis to eat dinner on Beale Street expecting it to be a very light crowd—but the action was in full swing. Turns out the Memphis Grizzlies had just finished their NBA game and people were pouring onto Beale Street. Though the music has changed some you can imagine a teenage Elvis Presley walking down the same street being inspired by the music and dress of the performers there back in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Would there be an Elvis without Beale Street?


But not without Memphis, and not without the Blues music that flowed to the city from the Mississippi Delta.

If you’re ever just driving through Memphis it’s worth a stop to take in Beale Street. Just last month Beale Street was named “Best Iconic Street” in America in a USA TODAY Poll.

And since this is a blog on movies I thought I’d find a list of movies shot in Memphis. Here a list I found by Teresa R. Simpson.

1) Castaway
2) Hustle and Flow
3) The Client
4) Walk the Line
5) 21 Grams
6) The Firm
7) Great Balls of Fire
8) Forty Shades of Blue
9) The People Vs. Larry Flint
10) The Rainmaker

Since John Grisham has three films on that listed from his books—and he used to live and work in Memphis—I thought I pick my favorite of that bunch to showcase. Check out The Firm if you haven’t seen it.

P.S. BTW—I had a shrimp po-boy which is something you should try if you’re not from the South, have never had one, and visit there sometime. Also, hope you enjoy my subtle visual wink in the Beale Street photo that took a little work to time right to give it the Marc Cohn tie-in. Keeps life interesting.

Related Posts:
The Elvis of Screenwriting?
Screenwriting Quote #93 ( John Grisham)
Postcard #51 (Cotton Fields)
Postcard #47 (Tupelo)

Scott W. Smith

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“The cotton fields, that’s where the music came from. Chopping cotton, picking cotton, had to have a good mule to stand up in front of you. Soon, everybody be singing to chase away those blues.”
James “T-Model” Ford

When I was a little bitty baby 
My mama would rock me in the cradle 
In them old cotton fields back home
Cotton Fields by Lead Belly



You may have never seen cotton fields in the south, or heard of Huddie Ledbetter—who is better known as Lead Belly. But the two came together in 1940 when Lead Belly recorded a song he wrote called Cotton Fields. As you can see from the links below the song found its way into the world via a variety of musicians including Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, Harry Belafonte, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Elvis— along with Lead Belly’s original version.

Lead Belly was a blues musician born in 1888 on a plantation in Louisiana. He was one of those great musicians that led a tumultuous life. One that included prison time, as well as playing in clubs in New York City. Lead Belly died in 1949, but his influence has carried on well after his death. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain said Lead Belly was his favorite performer just before playing Lead Belly’s  Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

According to Wikipedia, Cotton Fields was featured on the TV programs The Muppet Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and in the movies Elvis: That’s the Way It Is and Cool Hand Luke.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t take that cotton field photo above in Mississippi or Louisiana, but outside Mobile, Alabama.

Scott W. Smith

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DSC_0572Proving that all beautiful sunsets aren’t only found at the beach I took the above picture yesterday in Villa Rica. I was in route yesterday from Orlando, Florida to a shoot in Athens, Alabama  when I pulled off Interstate 20 in Georgia between Atlanta and Birmingham because I was intrigued by the name of the historic town. The area was originally Creek Indian territory and received the name Villa Rica in the late 1800s during a gold rush. Villa Rica is derived from Spanish for “rich village.”

I used the street lights and the hood of my rental car to add some design elements to make the sunset shot less pedestrian.

Actress Maidie Norman (1912-1998) —who in 1977 was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame—was born in Villa Rica, and the movie Randy and the Mob (2007) was filmed mostly in Villa Rica. But perhaps most of all, Villa Rica is known as “The Birth Place of Southern Gospel Music.” Thomas A. Dorsey known as the “Father of Gospel Music” was born and raised in Villa Rica.

Dorsey is featured in the 1982 documentary Somebody Say Amen. He wrote the song Take My Hand, Precious Lord which was recorded by Aretha Franklin and  Whitney Houston, and Mahalia Jackson sang it at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.  (It was said to be King’s favorite hymn):

Here’s the Elvis version:

Scott W. Smith

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“HOW do you marry God after you’ve kissed the King?”
Maureen Doud
NY Times/ Where the Boys Aren’t 

“When I met Elvis, I met a very sweet and very courteous young man who jumped to his feet and said ‘Hello,’ and ‘ How do you do, Miss Dolores?’ I was very touched by his courtesy and honesty, and I thought immediately I would like this fellow.”
Dolores Hart

A spiritual documentary about a 73-year-old nun living in a rural Benedictine monastery/farm in Bethlehem, Connecticut might not seem like the easiest route to take to the Oscars, but it worked for God Is the Bigger Elvis—the story of former a Hollywood actress who once kissed Elvis Presley in a movie.

The 35-minute film directed by Rebecca Cammisa centers around the life of Chicago-born Dolores Hart who starred in the 1960 Ft. Lauderdale spring break flick Where the Boys Are and was in the cast with Elvis in King Creole (1958) before giving up a career in movies to lead a simple spiritual life. (The film was nominated in the 2012 Academy Awards for Documentary Short where it lost to Saving Face.)

How does a documentary like God Is the Bigger Elvis get produced? According to the NY Times, Sheila Nevis, president of HBO Documentary Film, has a weekend home near Bethlehem and thought it would make a good film, and serves as the executive producer on God Is the Bigger Elvis.

I couldn’t find a preview of the HBO documentary, but here’s an old 20/20 program that features Reverend Mother Dolores Hart, followed by an ABC link to here being at the 2012 Academy Awards.

ABC Academy Awards Special

By the way, I don’t think you would have had any problems convincing Elvis that God was bigger than him. He reportedly once said in a concert, “There’s only one king and that’s Jesus Christ.” He was baptized in the First Assembly of God in East Tupelo, Mississippi. Billy Graham said that he expected to see Elvis in heaven, and Elvis recorded many gospel songs including How Great Thou Art.

P.S. My extremely loose connection to Dolores Hart is according to an article by Thema Adams Hart mentions studying acting with Jeff Corey. She didn’t care for his style and quit studying all together. When I first moved to LA in the early 80s, I called Mr. Corey because I knew Jack Nicholson had studied with him. Corey’s acting workshops were based in Malibu and when I told him I lived in Burbank he basically said, “find someone in the valley” and hung-up. He was a gifted actor and teacher (on top of being a combat photographer during WWII) who trained many Hollywood actors and directors. He died in 2002.

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
Elvis Presley

Last night at the Sundance Film Festival Sam Levinson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Another Happy Day. Unfamiliar with Levinson, I was curious to see the path that the 25-year-old writer/director took to make his first feature.

“I guess it goes back to what I said about fanatically watching films since I was very young. I began to see to the film in my head and then as a reference point, I watched certain films, each of them for different reasons, but all of them had aspects of the way I wanted to shoot this film. There was nothing haphazard here, and this is not a criticism of any other style of filmmaking but I never had any thoughts of shooting this film in a verité style. I always saw this film as somehow, ‘formally informal.’ I am in no way comparing my film to these, but I went back again and again, to three extremely different types of films. I watched. ‘Who’ s afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ directed by Mike Nichols, ‘Hannah and her Sisters,’ directed by Woody Allen and ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ again Nichols.”
Sam Levinson

I haven’t seen Another Happy Day, but since it’s an emotional drama surrounding an upper-class wedding and a dysfunctional family, it’s hard at first glance to not connect it to Rachel Getting Married. (Written by director Sidney Lumet’s daughter, Jenny.)

Turns out that Sam is the son of director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, The Natural). I’m sure Sam picked up a thing or two from his brilliant father at the dinner table.

Add Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) into the mix and you definitely see a trend emerging. So if you happen to be looking for an alternative to USC/UCLA/AFI film school, don’t have a Minneapolis background (Coen Brothers, Diablo Cody, Nick Shenk), and are looking for a way to break into screenwriting— then having a father who is a gifted and talented director can help. And I hate to complicate matters, but the elder Lumet, Coppola and Levinson are Oscar-winners, as well. (Plus I’m not sure if adoption counts.)

Truth is statistically very few sons and daughters of Hollywood’s successful producers, directors, writers, and actors make it as big as their mother or father. There’s a special burden attached to the situation. Think of the pressures of being, say, the daughter of Elvis and wanting to have a musical career. If  you don’t need the money—it’s really not worth the all the pain of constantly being compared to the king. You don’t get the luxury of failing and of taking the time to find your own voice.

So congrats to Sam Levinson (and Sofia and Jenny) for stepping up to the plate. (And keep in mind Jenny Lumet was working as a school teacher when she sold Rachel Getting Married.)

“I was driving a truck and studying to be an electrician.”
21-year-old Elvis Presley talking in 1956 about what he did before his musical career took off.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a truck driver (or a son or daughter of a truck driver)  living in a two-room house in, say, Tupelo, Mississippi and you’re writing screenplays and don’t have a single contact in Hollywood—just keep writing and making connections. Who knows, maybe you’ll hook-up with a filmmaker in Memphis and bigger things will happen for both of you. It’s happened before. Dream big, but take little steps.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Memphis-based Craig Brewer,
writer/director Hustle & Flow

If there’s ever an Elvis of screenwriting I’d put my money on that person not being someone who comes from Hollywood royalty, but from a background that looks more like this…

Update 1/31/11: As far as the current crop of Hollywood sons & daughters, I’d put Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s son, Jason (Juno, Up in the Air), as the top candidate to top his father’s legacy.

Scott W. Smith

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Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
61 Highway Blues
Fred McDowell

And he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61″
Bob Dylan
Highway 61

In light of Bob Dylan playing two miles from my house tomorrow night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa I thought I’d give a nod to the man from Minnesota who influenced a generation. (And, yes, I have a ticket for the concert.)

Dylan and Highway 61 both are deeper roots to what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. (Yes, technically a stretch of Highway 61 runs though Iowa, but Dylan’s reference as well as this blog’s name is more metaphorical.)

Where does really talent come from? Everywhere. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota which happens to be a stop on Highway 61 as it goes from New Orleans all the way north to Wyoming, Minnesota. (Contrary to the lyrics in 61 Highway Blues, Highway 61 goes nowhere near New York City.) Highway 61 has been called “The Blues Highway” because of the southern region from which blues music sprang up before it flowed into the world.

At the corner of Highway 61  and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a master blues musician. Lots of talent has driven up and down Highway 61 including Muddy Waters, “the father of the blues,” who was born in the Mississippi Delta near Highway 61 between Clarksville and Vicksburg.

Muddy Waters not only influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis, but rock n’ roll, jazz, folk, R&B,  country and who knows what else. His 1950 song Rollin’ Stone is where the Rolling Stones took their name.  And of course, Waters & other bluesmen influenced Dylan. So that’s the Highway 61 connection.

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe were drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Zimmerman became Bob Dylan while playing the folk music circuit in the Minneapolis area known as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Some have said the name change was a nod to Welch poet Dylan Thomas. (“Do not go gentle into that good night.”) That was 50 years ago. Just a few years before he would record the album Highway 61 Revisited, which the magazine The Rolling Stone listed as the #4 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone (from the album Highway 61 Revisited) comes is at number one.

Not bad for a kid from Hibbing.

P.S. I’ve been listening to Dylan’s songs before screenwriter Diablo Cody was born. But I should point out that she was not only the inspiration behind me starting this blog in ’08 —Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)— but she has ties to the same artistic, literary, and musical turf that Dylan tread in Minneapolis.

Related Posts:
Highway 61 Meets A1A (Dylan & Buffett)
Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)

Scott W. Smith

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