Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

There’s only one director for the Elvis biopic, and his name is David Lynch

Illustration for article titled There’s only one director for the Elvis biopic, and his name is David Lynch

Maybe the camera starts in the womb, where a pair of male fetuses prepare for two very different lives. Actually, one gets no life at all—he dies before taking his first breath of Tupelo air—while the other, having perhaps absorbed his twin’s life force, becomes something superhuman, comes kicking and screaming into a world he’ll revolutionize with his music.

The opening shot could also be in a gaudy Memphis bathroom 42 years later, where a fat, sweaty man with giant muttonchops and PJs around his ankles lies face down on a shag carpet, no longer breathing.

Those are just the two most obvious options. There’s no shortage of places one could begin a movie about Elvis Presley, as his was, cradle to grave, the ultimate American story. It’s an almost biblical rags-to-riches tale infused with elements of horror, farce, and even science fiction, and while many have tried to bring it to the screen, there’s yet to be a definitive biopic.


The closest is John Carpenter’s 1979 made-for-TV Elvis, which stars a superbly cast Kurt Russell. The three-hour ABC drama drew big ratings and continues to garner critical praise, but for all its strengths, it has the look and feel of a late-’70s TV movie, and it ends before Elvis’ death.

Carpenter’s was a valiant attempt at a story that may well be unfilmable, but if any director is up to the task, it’s one of his contemporaries—a man whose visual style, thematic obsessions, and experimental soundscapes have made him one of the most revered and puzzled-over filmmakers of all time. His name is David Lynch.

Sadly, Warner Bros. has other ideas. Earlier this month, news broke that Baz Luhrmann is in talks to bring the King’s story to the big screen, and while the Aussie auteur behind The Great Gatsby knows a thing or two about tragic American heroes with really giant houses, his aesthetic is far too bright and splashy—even for a film about a guy who wore capes and sequin jumpsuits. Lynch isn’t just the better choice; he’s the only choice.

Consider the subject matter: Presley’s life was bookended by grotesquery (the stillbirth of twin Jesse Garon on one end, his ignoble demise on the other) and filled with crazy adventures involving sex, drugs, guns, rockabilly, and towering pompadours. Lynch has touched on those very topics, in grotesque fashion, throughout his career. Even though he’s moved away from traditional features—his last was 2006’s Inland Empire, if you can call that a “traditional feature”—and focused on music, digital shorts, and unexpected one-offs like his concert film for Duran Duran, he has the eye and ear needed to tell this story. And it might be enough to coax Lynch into making a proper full-length film. He’s a self-professed Elvis super fan, and he’s often made direct reference to the rock ’n’ roll icon.


Lynch did so most notably with 1990’s Wild At Heart, in which Nicolas Cage plays Sailor, a handsome ne’er-do-well crooner railroaded by the cops and marked for death by his witchy (literally) mother-in-law. As terrifying and outlandish as the film is, it functions like an alternate-universe telling of the Elvis story. Sailor is a version of Presley that never makes it as a musician, stays a truck driver, gets mixed up with the wrong people, and somehow winds up a character in a demented update of another truly quintessentially American fantasy, The Wizard Of Oz. Sailor, like Elvis, is a bad boy who just wants to do good, as is made clear in the final scene, when he serenades his lady with “Love Me Tender,” one of two Presley tunes he sings in the film.

Even when Lynch isn’t explicitly referencing Elvis, he’s exploring the darkness lurking behind the post-war American dream that Presley so garishly personified. Blue Velvet is set in or around the year it came out, 1986, but it, like so many of Lynch’s works, it has an eerie ‘50s feel. The director is fixated on the era in which Elvis rose to stardom, and were he to helm the biopic, he’d likely spend a fair bit of time on the early years, when Presley and his band were cutting their first Sun singles and America was still pretending everything was peachy keen.


One imagines Lynch would shoot Memphis much the same way he did Blue Velvet’s fictional town of Lumberton, even though it’s a mid-size city rather than a small logging community. In the daytime, it’s sunny and pleasant, but after dark, the sociopaths and sexual deviants come out of hiding. No one in the Elvis saga is as whacked-out or vicious as Frank Booth, the character played with sinister glee by Dennis Hopper, but introducing, say, Colonel Tom Parker, the man who would become Elvis’ (mis)manager, Lynch would surely find a way to send a chill down our spines.

In a way, Elvis was destined to wind up with a guy like Parker. Before he got famous, there was a purity about him that makes the later episodes in his life all the more upsetting, however inevitable they may have been. By all accounts, the Elvis of the early ’50s was a polite young man who loved his mother and treated people right. He was trusting and decent—just like Jeffrey Beaumont, Kyle MacLachlan’s character in Blue Velvet, and Agent Dale Cooper, who the same actor portrayed on the cult TV show Twin Peaks. In Lynch’s universe, such characters are reassuring, but their goodness leaves viewers on edge, foreshadowing evil just around the bend.


For much of Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper seems incorruptible, but depending on how you read the series finale, he might not be so immune to the dark side after all. The final shots (spoiler alert) of a deranged Coop—maybe an evil doppelgänger, maybe not—are jarring because we’ve come to love and trust him, and that’s another asset Lynch would bring to the Elvis biopic. He’s great at establishing characters as one thing and then revealing them to be another—whether it’s Cooper emerging demonic from the Black Lodge or Leland Palmer, another Twin Peaks figure we really want to believe is innocent, committing the most egregious act a father can commit.

Moving into Elvis’ twilight years, Lynch would have a ball showing the singer onstage in Las Vegas. His glitzy latter-day renditions of ’50s favorites might have the phony look of Ben, Dean Stockwell’s Blue Velvet villain, lip-synching to “In Dreams,” a 1963 hit for Presley’s fellow Sun Records alum Roy Orbison. Lynch returns to Orbison balladry—and vexing showbiz artifice—in Mulholland Drive (2001), when a female singer’s moving Spanish take on “Crying” turns out to be nothing but miming.


Throughout his Elvis film, Lynch might probe the King’s psyche with visions of Jesse Garon, and if so, you can bet he’d avoid the ham-fisted, oversimplified storytelling directors Taylor Hackford and James Mangold relied on in Ray and Walk The Line, respectively. The “rocker haunted by dead brother” has become something of a cliché, and if Lynch goes there, he’ll do it up right, imagining Jesse as a something akin to the “Lady In The Radiator”—the sperm-squishing, chubby-cheeked siren conjured up by Eraserhead protagonist Henry Spencer after the birth of his deformed child.

Tackling the death scene, Lynch might approach it like he did Lady Blue Shanghai, the 16-minute promo film he shot for Dior in 2010. Lynch is a master of making rooms feel claustrophobic and foreboding, and if he can turn a posh Shanghai hotel suite into something out of a nightmare, imagine what he can do with Elvis’ tacky Graceland bathroom.


Here’s the best and most Lynchian part of the Elvis story: It doesn’t have to end with his death. Conspiracy theorists still insist he faked his demise, and given the way his films work, Lynch could explore that possibility without taking sides. Maybe he moves the action ahead to the early ’80s and shows us a King-like fellow sunning himself on a Hawaiian beach or singing ballads in a tacky Berlin lounge. As long as Lynch films him like he does that fake bird at the end of Blue Velvet or the doppelgänger Laura Dern sees of herself on Hollywood Boulevard in Inland Empire, he’ll leave viewers with more than enough doubt. Is Elvis really alive, or after three hours of watching him destroy himself with pills and peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, do we simply want to believe he escaped his fate?

Also, have you seen Lynch’s hair? Who else is gonna shoot this thing?


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