Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: 'Blue Suede Shoes: The Culture of Elvis'

With a title and cover focusing on objects and a publisher specializing in photo books, Glitterati’s Blue Suede Shoes: The Culture of Elvis seems like it should be an eye-bursting collection of images of Elvis’s glitziest and gaudiest costumes and knick-knacks. There is some of that stuff with shots of Graceland’s outrageous interior and the King’s capes and jumpsuits, but the real purpose of this book is to share anecdotes from and images of people who knew Elvis both intimately and fleetingly.

A good deal of the stories are pretty superficial and tend to accentuate the positive. We get that Elvis was very generous, very down-to-earth despite the spangles and wall of TVs, and had a quirky penchant for roller-skating and practical jokes.  Only a scattering of anecdotes reveal more about the man beneath the pompadour, but these can be pretty revealing indeed. Ex-girlfriend Anita Wood remembers how Elvis’s mother’s casket had to be covered in glass “so Elvis wouldn’t be touching her all the time” and discussed his mother’s corpse in baby talk (“look at her little footies”), giving us a glimpse of a creepy side most other commentators avoid. Elvis’s personal stylist Larry Gellar tells an equally intimate though more touching tale about Elvis’s thirst for someone with whom to discuss his spirituality, his complex feelings over his twin brother’s death at birth, and his impoverished beginnings. This phase of Elvis’s life is also documented with stark images of his boyhood home. The decision to include the infamous Dr. Nick, who kept Elvis’s medicine cabinet a bit too well stocked and contributes an innocuous anecdote, might not have been the most well-considered one. Neither was the decision to end the book with a story that ends with Elvis apparently making some sort of racist joke.

But again, the main photographic focus is the faces of all the people who share their stories, and Thom Gilbert shoots this cast of characters in intense close ups. Because these people are in the later stages of their lives, and Gilbert makes no attempt to airbrush away the lines and white hairs (though Kim Novak, who contributes the foreword, is represented by a Vertigo-era head shot), his photos seem to tell their own tales of long-lived lives. The almost exaggerated smiles on a lot of these faces imply they’ve been happy ones, perhaps partially because they’d been touched by Elvis. Yet because Gilbert is more concerned with faces that do not belong to Elvis than memorabilia, I’m not sure how appealing the photographic aspect of this book will be to fans. Appreciators of bold portraiture may be the real audience for Blue Suede Shoes: The Culture of Elvis.
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