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‘Elvis’ Fact or Fiction: Colonel Tom Parker Biographer on What’s Real and What’s Not in Baz Luhrmann Biopic

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Courtesy Warner Bros.; courtesy Sony Music

Does the phrase “That’s All Right, Mama” apply to the new “Elvis” movie… as in, “that’s all correct, ma’am”? No one is probably expecting that; any practiced watcher of biopics knows virtually any example will take deep liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. And maybe it’s a given that a director who puts hip-hop and hard rock on his period-film soundtracks, as Baz Luhrmann does, might favor effect over total verisimilitude.

Still, “Elvis” is right on enough counts — literally or spiritually — that it’s worth trying to separate fact from fiction in the movie’s narrative of Elvis Presley (played by Austin Butler) and his nearly career-long manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). There may be no one better to go to who can provide the truth on both Presley and “the Colonel,” in tandem, than the latter’s biographer, Alanna Nash. Nash, a veteran music journalist, published “The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley” to acclaim in 2010 and her book has just been reissued with a new afterword.

The new “Elvis” film is not based on her book, nor did Luhrmann read it, by his account (although he says researchers presented him with notes from that and many other key Presley-related books). But Nash’s work is considered by many to be the authoritative word on Parker, a former carnie who made his fortune off the King, and whose pros and cons as a very, very controlling manager continue to be debated to this day. Variety spoke with her about how much rings true about both of the movie’s primary subjects, point by point.

What’s your overall feeling on the movie’s truth-ometer? Are the liberties worth it for creating an artistic picture? Does it veer off in ways that seem unnecessary?

The timeline… well, what timeline? It’s all a Baz Luhrmann fever dream. The past, present and future are all shook up like a ‘50s milkshake and served with a thousand straws! Other than the tremendous pains Baz has taken to make this story seem “woke,” the liberties are essentially fair — except to Parker. In making him such an antagonist, they have robbed him of his many accomplishments with his client.

Is it true, as portrayed, that Parker was consistently trying to pressure Elvis to tone down his sex appeal?

No, no, not at all. Elvis took care of what Elvis did and Colonel took care of what Colonel did. He liked it that Elvis did what brought folks into the big tent. Listen, this guy was no fool! Parker loved it that Elvis was like a male striptease artist… like the bally girls on the carnivals. That sold tickets! The only time Parker got critical is when the shows began to falter with drugs or erratic behavior on stage. But that was in the ’70s.

Was there a late ’50s concert riot in which Elvis deliberately disobeyed Parker’s orders not to move around or wiggle on stage?

There were concert riots, most notably in Jacksonville, Fla., but not a concert for which Parker issued orders like that. No, all that stuff was rehearsed and rehearsed. Colonel knew what Elvis was doing and going to do. And again, he did not advise Elvis on any aspect of his performance. Headlines about how lascivious early Elvis was sold concert tickets. When Parker crony Gabe Tucker threw a magazine piece on the Colonel’s desk that insinuated that Elvis was gay, Parker didn’t say a word until his friend stopped sputtering. “Well,” Parker finally said, “Did they spell his name right?”

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Scene from the film “Elvis”

Did Parker’s accent really sound like the one Tom Hanks is using in the film?

No. It was more American, more rural. And he had what sounded like a slight lisp or speech impediment. Turns out he didn’t have an impediment — he was just trying to wrap a Dutch tongue around the English language, Southern-style. It sounded like a weird (Southern) regional dialect, and you would know it was Dutch only by listening for certain consonants. But Baz wanted to make him seem more “other.” Or as Baz told me in an interview, “I thought it was very important that Tom present the audience with a strangeness, a sort of ‘What is going on with this guy?’”

Did the Colonel live out his later years being sickly in casinos, as portrayed in the movie’s framing device?

Yes. He was also a consultant to the Hilton, where he gambled every day.

Did Parker really have huge gambling debts he was able to pay off by committing Elvis to a single Vegas hotel for years before Presley’s death?

Yes. Elvis never knew how many shows he played free to satisfy Parker’s enslavement to the roulette wheel and the craps table. In fact, Colonel didn’t even have to go down to the casino. The hotel would bring a roulette wheel to his room. Alex Shoofey, the executive VP of the International, testified that Parker was good for $1 million a year in gambling, but others think that number is low.

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Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Colonel Parker is seen as under pressure from secretive governmental forces who want to keep Elvis from corrupting youth — and to try to get him to tamp down Presley, they threaten to expose his past, as a non-American native of Holland, which he’s desperate to hide. Is there anything to that?

That’s total and unequivocal bunk, a complete invention in the movie. First of all, when Colonel Parker enlisted in the U.S. Army, he declared himself a Dutch citizen, with parents born in Holland. That was fine — we took foreign nationals — but he just had to swear he’d become a U.S. citizen, which he never did, because he went AWOL. But he worked closely with the Pentagon, planning Elvis’ army career and post-army concert to raise money for the U.S.S. Arizona monument.

Is it true that Colonel Parker’s reason for being attracted to Elvis was that he thought a white singer who sounded Black was bound to be a star and accomplish what a Black singer could not?

No. Eddy Arnold, whom Parker had built into a household name, had fired him as his manager over failing to honor their exclusive contract, though Parker continued to book him. The Colonel was now looking for the next big thing. He didn’t care what color he was. My guess is that, if Elvis had been Black, he wouldn’t have been as interested, because it would have been harder to take him to a larger audience, especially in the segregated South, which was Parker’s stronghold from his days on the carnival circuit.

Elvis’s first manager, Bob Neal, told me that he had a heck of a time getting stations to play Elvis’s first single. Country radio stations said Elvis sounded too Black to play, and the stations that played rhythm and blues said he sounded too much like a hillbilly. But a few of them started playing them all the time. The Colonel promoted Elvis’s first big tour with Hank Snow. Once a big crowd saw Elvis perform, there was a demand for his record.

But that gets telescoped in the movie. In the film, when the Colonel goes to the Louisiana Hayride and first sees Elvis, he’s told backstage that Elvis is on the pop charts and that the country DJs are playing him too, and that Black and white kids are buying Elvis’s records. That potential is what interests him. He also says in the film that if he could find an act that gave the audience feelings they weren’t sure they should enjoy, but did, he could create the greatest show on earth. That’s really what he was looking for all along.

Were Elvis’ primary music influences almost all Black artists, as portrayed in the movie?

No, Luhrmann has really framed this through a present-day lens. Elvis had just as many white influences and announced as early as seventh grade that he was going to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. Remember, he entered a talent contest as a child singing “Old Shep” — warbling about dead dogs is about as country as it gets. An early hero in Tupelo was a hillbilly singer named Mississippi Slim. But living in a “colored” neighborhood, as he did, he certainly heard early R&B, jump-blues and swing tunes pulsating through the walls at the nearby juke joints, and he loved it, as he did both Black and white gospel. Still, the odds were heavily in favor that he’d be a country singer and his stint on the Louisiana Hayride seemed to point him in that direction.

Would Elvis have gone to Black Pentecostal tent meetings as a kid, as seen in the film?

He might have gone to Black churches with his friend, Sam Bell, in Tupelo, as a kid. The Black-white divide didn’t mean much to the Presleys. Later, in Memphis, he certainly attended a white fundamentalist church, and — with his early girlfriend, Dixie Locke — the all-Black East Trigg Baptist Church to hear Black gospel. He mentions that church in the film.

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Alton Mason as Little Richard in “Elvis” Warner Bros. PIctures

He is seen attending so many performances by R&B singers, whether it’s Arthur Big Boy Crudup as a kid or Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King and Little Richard later. Is it fantasy that he was constantly seeing or meeting up with all these important artists?

Yes and no. This is Luhrmann showing us Elvis’s influences. Elvis is famously quoted as saying, “Down in Tupelo, Miss., I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said, if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody saw.” But it’s unclear whether this was on the radio or in person. Teenage Elvis, living in Memphis, certainly went to West Memphis, Arkansas and to Beale Street to hear Black performers. And he continued to go see Black performers, such as Jackie Wilson, throughout his life. He also paid a visit to Little Richard’s home in California in the late ‘50s.

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Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton in “Elvis” Warner. Bros Pictures

With B.B. King, there was a chance meeting at Sun Studios and, in late 1956, at a famous all-Black charity show, where King was the headliner and Elvis, as an invited guest, came out and wiggled his leg, but did not perform. Backstage, he and King had a photo made. Marty Lacker told me that Elvis and B.B. King used to visit some in Las Vegas, but that was in the ‘70s. He told me: “There were times when B.B. King would be playing in the lounge, and Elvis would be playing in the big room. Elvis would invite B.B. up to the suite after the shows. He liked B.B. and B.B. liked him.”

Elvis’ influences were so diverse. Some people have said the movie undersells Elvis’ country and crooner influences to make him look like almost solely the product of blues and R&B. Any thoughts on that?

I would agree with that. But this is Lurhmann telling us Elvis didn’t steal Black music, as he has been accused of doing, but performed it in homage. I would say it was in his spiritual DNA, as he grew up with Black playmates and heard that music all around him. But Gladys was a big Grand Ole Opry fan, and it was in part the Colonel’s introducing her to Hank Snow that got her to let her boy go with the Colonel. But yes, adolescent Elvis listened to all kinds of music, from the Ink Spots to Dean Martin.

Any thoughts on the portrayal early in the film of country star Hank Snow, who first takes Elvis out on the road before becoming disgusted with him, and his son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow, who seems to worship Elvis? 

Snow had a big ego and resented the fact that Elvis quickly became the draw on his shows, not Snow. And his son, Jimmie (later Jimmy), envied Elvis and yearned to counsel him on his “sinful” ways. Elvis kind of liked Jimmie. They went motorcycle riding together in Nashville. Parker used Jimmie to sidle up to Elvis and form a friendship to get Elvis to sign with Parker and the elder Snow, who were then business partners. But then Colonel cheated Hank out of half of Elvis and that was that. Jimmie later went to Graceland in 1958 to talk to him about how he had given up drinking and doing pills on the road and had turned his life over to Jesus. Elvis wasn’t ready for hear all that yet.

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Alanna Nash’s “The Colonel” book Simon and Schuster

What’s the real origin story of Parker hearing about and going to discover Elvis?

He probably initially heard about Elvis from his cronies in Texarkana when Elvis was playing little clubs while on the Louisiana Hayride. What turned Colonel’s head, though, was a report from his old friend Oscar Davis, who went to Memphis in October 1954 to advance an Arnold appearance at Ellis Auditorium, and saw how Elvis packed a local dive, the Eagle’s Nest, night after night with screaming women. Davis went to have a look and went back to tell Colonel Parker all about him and how he wiggled and girls went wild. Charlie Lamb, who was present that day, told me that Parker got up from the lunch table and got in his car that minute and drove to find him.

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Helping Elvis Presley, right, cut a straight furrow is his business manager and confidant, “Colonel” Tom Parker of Madison, Tenn. on January 7, 1957. Scene is from the set of the Presley movie, “Love Me Tender.” ASSOCIATED PRESS

What about Presley’s entrance into the Army? It’s shown as being Parker’s idea to get him away for a while to put a lid on the sexual energy and image.

Oh, Parker instigated that whole thing, but it wasn’t to put a lid on the sexual energy. He began negotiating it all with the Pentagon in 1956. He wanted Elvis to go not to Special Services, where the army was happy to put him, but to serve his time as any other soldier. This would sand the rough edges off his image and bring him back as the all-American boy fit for family entertainment with Frank Sinatra. It was all to make him into a beloved pop idol, not a dangerous, lugubrious rock ‘n’ roller.

Parker wanted to make Elvis clean-cut after he came back from the army in part because when Elvis went into the army, neither Elvis nor Parker thought rock ‘n’ roll would last. Elvis, especially, thought that it might even be over by the time he got out. So while he was gone (remember, Parker never went to Germany when Elvis was there), Parker set up all these appearances and movies for him, and the idea was to make him appeal to families — the all-American boy that would have longevity, and could grow into that role as he aged. But once Elvis was onstage, controlling the music, he did what he wanted.

It’s kind of like Priscilla letting Baz make Parker out to be such a villain, but is now having Hanks and Baz say they toned down the Colonel’s evilness once they met with her, because Parker was a good guy. They’re having it both ways.

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Tom Hanks and Elvis Butler come to an understanding on a ferris wheel in “Elvis” film Warner Bros. Pictures

Is the portrayal of the ’68 comeback special accurate, with Parker trying desperately to keep it a Christmas special, and resisting the rock ‘n’ roll throwback elements that everyone loved, because he was kowtowing to a deeply upset TV network?

Yes and no. It was supposed to be a Christmas show in the sense that it would air in December, and Parker wanted it to be a family show with Elvis as a ‘60s-era Bing Crosby or Perry Como. But there was never a Christmas sweater or a fairy-tale Christmas set. That’s Luhrmann being the showman. Parker was ticked that there was initially no Christmas music, though, and (TV producer) Steve Binder and Elvis threw him “Blue Christmas” as a bone.

Is the portrayal of Elvis’ relationship with Priscilla, however briefly that is dramatized, basically accurate?

It’s both sanitized and expanded. After the divorce, Elvis and Priscilla had little shared experience other than arranging Lisa Marie’s visits.

Did Elvis ever really fire Parker on stage, followed by Parker getting back at him by threatening to demand repayment for every tiny expense item over the years?

He never fired him on stage, but there was an incident in Vegas in 1974 where Elvis criticized Barron Hilton from the stage for firing one of Elvis’s favorite employees. That led to a colossal shouting match afterwards with Parker and talk of firing and quitting on both their parts, with Colonel ultimately presenting a bill that the Presleys could not pay. And so things resumed as they had been. Elvis would never have been so crass as to have fired Colonel from the stage.

Did Parker really do everything in his power to make sure Elvis didn’t fulfill his wish of touring internationally?

Yes. Parker had no passport and couldn’t go and didn’t trust any other promoter to take him. He cited several reasons — primarily security — and not big enough venues, or said the money wasn’t right. Near the end of his life, Parker is said to have been speaking with two promoters about this, since Elvis was so deeply unhappy about never getting to go tour Europe, but it never happened.

Did Parker really install Elvis’ dad, Vernon, as business manager to make sure he, the Colonel, could really run all things?

More or less. Vernon needed something to do, and he was always willing to take money under the table, and Parker saw how malleable he was, and would have suggested Vernon be the so-called business manager. Privately, Parker referred to Elvis’s family as “shit” and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.

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Elvis (Austin Butler) and his parents sign contracts and pose for pictures with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) in a scene from ‘Elvis’ Warner Bros. PIctures

Did Parker talk of things in carnival or carnie or conman terms as much as he does in this movie?

Yes, he did. For example, in discussing how he didn’t ever want to get taken advantage of, he’d say, “I don’t want to end up with cider in my ear.” And he had an underling fix up a “cookhouse,” a so-called carnival kitchen, by throwing an oilcloth over the conference room table in his office on the MGM lot. One thing he did with me was to say, “I want you to remember this.” And then he launched into this carny double-speak that sounded kind of like pig Latin. Of course, I had no idea what he was saying, much less remembered it. He never left the carnivals, really.

Anything else to say about the Parker characterization?

The Colonel is a complicated character, and while he always took too much of Presley’s money, he made some very sound decisions for him. Luhrmann hasn’t really given him his due by a long shot.

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Tom Hanks and Austin Butler in ‘Elvis’ Warner Bros. Pictures