Elvis Presley didn’t invent rock and roll. He never claimed to, telling Jet magazine in 1957, “A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along.” At the same time, the 20th century would have looked much different if the “hillbilly cat” with the sensual lips and provocative dance moves had taken early advice and remained a truck driver.
Before Elvis, country-and-western and rhythm and blues were two crackling electrical lines running parallel to one another in the segregated South. When Memphis radio station WHBQ played Elvis singing a sped-up version of Delta bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” in July 1954, those wires crossed. And the sparks that flew from that initial meeting lit a pop-cultural fire that still burns to this day.
Up to and long after his death at the age of 42, Elvis became more symbol than musician. He was a pompadoured cipher onto whom people could project their racial, sexual, and generational anxieties during a period of rapid societal change. He was defanged by the white establishment, held back by old-fashioned management, and at turns romanticized and rejected by subsequent generations.
Nearly two dozen actors have played Elvis on TV and in the movies since 1979, when Kurt Russell starred as the King in John Carpenter’s made-for-TV biopic. The latest is Austin Butler, who rises from a minor role as Manson family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019) to a starring role as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s flashy biopic. Luhrmann’s film takes a revisionist view of the Elvis myth, reframing him from a gun-toting Tennessee good ol’ boy into a pseudo-revolutionary force and champion of civil rights. The problem is finding the man inside of the legend.
Given his distinctive look and sound, it’s easy for an actor to get lost inside impersonation when portraying Elvis. But when you watch footage of Elvis, particularly in early performances, he’s a live wire, powered by easy charisma, fluid movement, and fidgety, restless energy. Looking and sounding like Elvis helps, of course. But pretty much any classically handsome white guy can look kind of like Elvis with the help of a spangled jumpsuit, a black wig, and a pair of heavy-browed gold sunglasses. The tricky part is capturing and channeling Elvis’s magnetism, something only the best and most intuitive Elvii can do.
Paul Bonesch III, David Scott, Dana MacKay, and Johnny Harra, This Is Elvis (1981)
Four actors play Elvis at various stages of his life and career in This Is Elvis, a hybrid documentary released four months before a Memphis judge ordered the Presley estate to sue Presley’s longtime manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, in August 1981. The film proudly boasts Parker as a “special technical advisor,” and this is obviously an attempt at damage control, restating the Elvis story as Parker would like it to be told.
Paul Boensch III and David Scott acquit themselves as Elvis ages 10 and 18, respectively. But when the film gets into the more heavily documented portions of Presley’s life, This Is Elvis treads some very iffy territory by using MacKay and Harra to bookend documentary footage of Presley with reenactments that make no meaningful effort to distinguish themselves from their real-life counterpart. The result is a ghoulish assertion of Parker’s power over his client from beyond the grave. Combined with the fact that MacKay, a professional Elvis impersonator, was later murdered in a double homicide, the bad vibes hanging over this thing are nuclear.
This Is Elvis is available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video.
Don Johnson, Elvis and the Beauty Queen (1981, TV movie)
It’s bad enough that the Elvis Presley depicted in the 1981 TV movie Elvis and the Beauty Queen, about the King’s post-divorce affair with Tennessee beauty-pageant winner Linda Thompson, is a sexual predator and a smug prick. He’s introduced waving a flashlight into our heroine’s face and molesting her in a movie theater, and it only gets worse from there. And thanks to the film’s icky sexual politics, Thompson (Stephanie Zimbalist) loves it.
But the thing that makes Elvis and the Beauty Queen truly dreadful is Don Johnson’s dud of a performance. He’s Elvis by way of Liberace with a voice that’s too high, makeup that’s too contoured, and some wretched fat suit work in the final act. Worst of all, he barely tries onstage — his lip syncing and dancing are both subpar, a mortal sin in the land of Elvis.
Elvis and the Beauty Queen is available on DVD.
David Keith, Heartbreak Hotel (1988)
David Keith’s performance in the eyebrow-raising Chris Columbus comedy Heartbreak Hotel is notable mainly for its Ouroboros relationship with the much more believable Kurt Russell, who (a) also plays Elvis and (b) was in the movie Overboard, of which this is basically a gender-swapped remake. Keith is a stiff, passive action figure of an Elvis whose performance is more made for TV than most of the actors in actual made-for-TV movies about Presley’s life.
The basic plot is boomer wish fulfillment with a sprinkling of ’80s-movie amorality, as Ohio farm boy Johnny Wolfe (Charlie Schlatter) kidnaps Elvis after a show in Cleveland circa 1972. The Stockholm syndrome kicks in almost immediately as Elvis settles into a role as Johnny’s stepdad, courting the boy’s alcoholic mother (Tuesday Weld) and teaching him to conquer bullies through the power of rock-and-roll swagger. There is one fun scene in which Elvis beats up a local tough played by Chris Mulkey, a.k.a. Hank from Twin Peaks, even if the blow isn’t exactly credible. Little about this movie is.
Heartbreak Hotel is available on DVD.
Peter Dobson, Forrest Gump (1994), Protecting the King (2007)
Decades after the real Elvis’s death, actor Peter Dobson became Hollywood’s go-to guy for Presley-related projection. Speaking of baby-boomer wish fulfillment, Dobson makes a cameo in Forrest Gump as a boarder at the Gump house, when in a very Forrest Gump moment he pinches young Forrest’s stiff-legged walk and incorporates it into his act.
Dobson gets more screen time but is just as pliable in the 2007 biopic Protecting the King. Quickly banished to obscurity, Protecting the King was a vanity project written and directed by David Stanley, Elvis’s real-life stepbrother and a member of his entourage in his drug-addled final days. The purpose of the film seems to be to assuage Stanley’s guilt about Elvis dying on his watch, going out of its way to assert that Stanley did everything he could to help Elvis get off of those damn pills.
Ron Livingston, Shangri-La Suite (2016)
Ron Livingston is probably best known for his starring role in Mike Judge’s Office Space. And the grindhouse throwback Shangri-La Suite (a.k.a. Kill the King) gives him another opportunity to play a disaffected employee, in a way. A depressed has-been on a collision course with a serial killer in early ’70s L.A., Livingston’s Elvis is deeply dissatisfied with his life. He spends much of the movie staring forlornly into the middle distance; one scene sees him sitting alone in a poolside cabana, watching his many hangers-on having fun in the sun just feet away.
It’s not an especially radical interpretation of Elvis, who does seem to have been a real miserable bastard in his later years. Unfortunately, however, sadness is the only note Livingston hits in his performance. Combined with lackluster lip syncing and a lack of physical resemblance, that shuffles him further down the list.
Shangri-La Suite is streaming on Paramount+.
Rob Youngblood, Elvis and the Colonel: The Untold Story (1993)
Many depictions of Elvis go out of their way to emphasize his southern manners. (The exception is first-hand accounts from women with whom he was romantically involved, all of whom say he was inconsiderate at best.) But Rob Youngblood’s version of the singer in the 1993 TV movie Elvis and the Colonel: The Untold Story takes the averted eyes and mumbled “yes, sir”s to extremes. This is Elvis as doormat in a film that may have been revisionist for its time but is mild compared to later critiques of Parker’s management. (The last thing Elvis says to Parker is “I love you.”)
Yes, technically Beau Bridges is the star of the movie as the self-serving Colonel. But Elvis’s whole deal is that he radiated enough charisma that all eyes turned to him whenever he stepped into a room. And in this regard, Youngblood is lacking, a smooth stone skipping across the still waters of someone else’s story. He does look like the guy, though, even if his physicality is all lip and no hip.
Drake Milligan, Sun Records (2017, TV series)
Drake Milligan’s performance as Elvis on the quickly canceled CMT docudrama series Sun Records commits the ultimate Elvis crime: allowing other stars to burn brighter than the King. Milligan plays Presley as an affable, innocent mama’s boy with a thick drawl and an oversize curl across his forehead. His version of Elvis has yet to embrace his rock-and-roll destiny: He’s insecure about his voice and metronomic below the waist. And although he is a natural lover boy, it’s hard to imagine the Memphis vice squad being especially concerned about Milligan’s Elvis. Maybe if the show had been renewed, he would have found his edge. As it is, we’ll never know.
Sun Records is available to buy on Amazon Prime Video.
Harvey Keitel, Finding Graceland (1998)
Whether or not Harvey Keitel’s character in Finding Graceland is actually Elvis Presley, drifting across the highways of the American West more than 20 years after faking his own death, is left up to the audience’s interpretation. But it’s an irrefutable fact that Keitel looks nothing like Elvis either in face or in body type. (With apologies to short kings like Keitel, Elvis was famously tall and lanky.)
That being said, Keitel does have a palpable fuck-you energy, which — combined with some pretty killer lip syncing — means you can see it if you squint a little. He doesn’t have Elvis’s rubbery limbs or stage presence, however, which ultimately makes this delightfully unconventional casting a bit of a letdown.
Finding Graceland is available on DVD.
Jeff Yagher, “The Once and Future King,” The Twilight Zone (1986, TV episode)
George R.R. Martin wrote the teleplay for this particular piece of nostalgic boomer sci-fi about an Elvis impersonator who wakes up in Memphis circa 1954 after being knocked out in a head-on collision with a Cadillac one night after a show. Jeff Yagher plays both impersonator Gary Pitkin and Elvis himself, who uncharacteristically rejects Pitkin’s performance of “That’s All Right” as “trash.”
The fact that, if you weren’t watching too closely, you might actually believe Gary and Elvis were two different people speaks to Yagher’s skill at impersonating Elvis. But the real Elvis’s ultimate fate is too silly to lend “The Once and Future King” much weight, as is the suggestion that Presely’s lifelong melancholy came from the fact that he was an imposter going through the motions of someone else’s destiny.
The Twilight Zone is streaming on Paramount+.
Bruce Campbell, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
When Bruce Campbell puts on a pompadour wig and a pair of sunglasses, he does look like an older Elvis. It’s unclear how much of Don Coscarelli’s appealingly bizarre horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep is based on this realization, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the answer was “a lot.”
Like Elvis, Campbell has the confidence of a handsome guy who knows he’s handsome. But it’s difficult to make a one-to-one comparison between the men for two reasons. One, Elvis never lived to be as old as Campbell’s character in the film, a washed-up Elvis stranded in a dingy retirement home plagued by mummies. Two, we only see Campbell onstage from behind for a few seconds in a flashback sequence, and his moves radiate from the shoulders downward as opposed to the waist up.
What truly keeps Campbell from ascending to the top tier of Elvis-dom, however, is the fact that Ossie Davis steals the show as another rest-home inmate who thinks he’s JFK. And nobody stole the spotlight from Elvis.
Bubba Ho-Tep is streaming on PlutoTV.
Val Kilmer, True Romance (1993)
We barely see Val Kilmer’s face as Elvis in True Romance, which is too bad— a young Val Kilmer with a forehead curl? It works! As it stands, he appears from the neck down and in the shadows, dressed in a gold-lamé suit jacket and reassuring his biggest fan, Clarence (Christian Slater), that his life of crime is going great and that “two in the back of the fucking head” is indeed the appropriate way to deal with his new girlfriend’s (Alabama, played by Patricia Arquette) old pimp.
From what little source material there is to work with, Kilmer’s voice, presence, and outfit as Elvis are all right on. But the performance is undoubtedly lent credibility by association given that True Romance is one of the coolest manifestations of the ’90s retro revival.
True Romance is streaming on Tubi.
Michael Shannon, Elvis & Nixon (2016)
On the believability scale, Michael Shannon’s performance as a gun-crazed, patriotic Elvis — he shoots out one of Graceland’s three TVs at the enraging sight of a hippie burning a draft card — in the 2016 dramedy Elvis & Nixon ranks relatively low. This is because Michael Shannon doesn’t really try that hard to act or sound like Elvis, though he does mutter “Thank you, thank you very much” a couple of times.
For the most part, Shannon is just doing his gangly weirdo Michael Shannon schtick in Elvis & Nixon. But the thing is, Elvis was also a gangly weirdo. That lends Shannon’s loose-cannon portrayal a sort of spiritual accuracy even if a full ’70s Elvis getup, complete with sunglasses and pasted-on sideburns, can’t make Shannon look like the King. And Kevin Spacey strains to sound like Richard Nixon when the two do eventually meet, which gives a little shine to Shannon’s less try-hard mannerisms.
Elvis & Nixon is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Tyler Hilton, Walk the Line (2005)
Tyler Hilton has less than five minutes of screen time in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, and it’s telling that one of those scenes features Joaquin Phoenix as Cash watching in awe from the sidelines as Elvis jumps and wiggles across the humble stage of a high-school auditorium. The mere presence of Elvis in the film is meant to burnish Cash’s star by association, and Hilton does manage to pull focus away from Phoenix with an appropriately jumpy, if perhaps slightly too perky, energy. He also offers Cash chili fries at one point, an exchange that has no historical basis whatsoever but feels right.
Walk the Line is available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video.
Rick Peters, Elvis Meets Nixon (1997)
Alongside Jack White (more on him in a moment), B-movie jobber Rick Peters’s performance as Elvis in the 1997 Showtime mockumentary Elvis Meets Nixon is the most overtly comedic on this list. Directed by Rock ’n’ Roll High School’s Allan Arkush, Elvis Meets Nixon tells the same story as the later Elvis & Nixon but with a totally different take on its main character. Peters plays Elvis with a childlike naïveté, an oversize baby whose face is swollen from eating Hershey bars even though he’s allergic to chocolate and who moves through life with the clumsy destructiveness of a drunk bear.
In Arkush’s film, Elvis’s dislike of hippies comes from a (wholly fictional) encounter with some potheads who make fun of him on the Sunset Strip rather than your usual hardening of values in middle-aged white people. He lives for simple pleasures like cheeseburgers and John Wayne movies, and when he waves a gun around, it’s more playful than threatening. But given that the real Elvis was ensconced in a bubble of fame from his teen years onward, it’s plausible he didn’t know how to use a credit card or buy his own plane tickets, as Peters struggles to do in this movie. And Peters’s perpetually curled upper lip and little-boy sullenness both come across as charming, as does his unexpectedly good a capella singing midway through.
Elvis Meets Nixon is streaming on Freevee.
Jack White, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Jack White doesn’t sing in his cameo as Elvis in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but his rock-star charisma is put to good use for exactly 95 seconds of dick-swinging backstage swagger. It’s a two-note gag based on two enduring Elvis stereotypes: First, Presley’s fondness for karate, which White declares is only for two types of people, “the Chinese and the King.” Then there’s his low Memphis mumble. White exaggerates it to marble-mouthed effect, setting up a perfectly clueless reaction shot of Dewey (John C. Reilly) pretending to understand a single word of whatever Elvis just said. Both stereotypes are played with obvious affection: White, an Elvis superfan, bought the ten-inch tapes of Elvis’s first studio recording for $300,000 in 2015. White clearly took this silly role seriously, which is what makes it work.
Walk Hard is streaming on Peacock.
Dale Midkiff, Elvis and Me (1988, TV movie)
Meanwhile, Pet Sematary star Dale Midkiff’s portrayal of Elvis in the other ’80s TV movie based on a memoir by one of Presley’s romantic partners isn’t charming at all. Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 biography of the same name, Elvis & Me is less damning than Elvis and the Beauty Queen. But it does paint the King as an impulsive and selfish man who groomed a teenager to be his ideal plaything (she was 14 and he was 24 when they met), then tossed her aside the moment the novelty wore off.
Midkiff’s Elvis is volatile and emotionally abusive with the ability to turn on a dime. The portrayal isn’t flattering, and Midkiff’s wigs in the film are truly dreadful, but he hits multiple performance notes just right. He has the devil-may-care attitude and silver tongue that made women chase Elvis everywhere he went even if the movie posits that maybe he wasn’t worth catching. And his dissolution as his marriage ends and death looms is genuinely affecting, culminating in a heartbreaking final scene in which Elvis slurs out one last pathetic attempt to enchant his ex-wife back into his arms.
Elvis & Me is available on DVD.
Shawn Wayne Klush, “The King & I,” Vinyl (2016, TV episode), Shake, Rattle and Roll (TV movie, 1990), What We Do in the Shadows (2020, TV series)
The Elvis episode of HBO’s Vinyl is another perfect example of filmmakers using Elvis as more of a mouthpiece that a character: At one point, Shawn Wayne Klush, playing a creatively frustrated Elvis who longs to trade Vegas for Woodstock, tells Bobby Cannavale’s character, “You get it, man!” But even though he’s there more to reinforce the show’s belief in its own coolness than to uncover any real emotional truths about Elvis Presley, Klush has the advantage of looking and sounding eerily like Elvis in his later years without having to lean on fat-suit caricature.
That’s to be expected given that Klush is a professional Elvis impersonator who’s won multiple look-alike contests. What keeps him from rising to the very top is that he’s a little too lead-footed onstage even for late-period Elvis. The movement issue is mitigated in the second season of What We Do in the Shadows, however, which sees Klush as Elvis contentedly sitting at a mixing board in the vampires’ basement, spending eternity making music for no one but himself.
Austin Butler, Elvis (2022)
Elvis had enough wattage to light up the Vegas strip, and so does Baz Luhrmann’s flashy, glib musical biopic. Austin Butler’s version of Elvis is a sulky pretty boy with smokey-eye makeup, loud silk shirts, and lips the color and texture of bubblegum. Men hate him, and women spontaneously orgasm when they hear him sing, which is a big part of why men hate him. It’s difficult to say much more about Butler as Elvis in the first hour of the movie because the camera never lands on his face for longer than a second.
But Butler and Luhrmann do relax into the performance as Elvis goes on. In dialogue scenes, Anaheim-born Butler is trying very hard to nail Elvis’s accent, which can’t help but show up on his face. But like Elvis, Butler is a natural onstage, where his jittery energy stops fighting the more mannered aspects of the performance. Butler has looser limbs and more mobile hips than most onscreen Elvii, and his onstage gymnastics are impressive throughout. But the most convincing moment in the entire movie is when Butler is singing onstage in Vegas. Throughout the song, one of Butler’s legs bounces like it’s trying to get away from the rest of his body, a small detail that captures so much about the essence of Elvis Presley.
Elvis (2022) is now playing in theaters.
Michael St. Gerard, Great Balls of Fire! (1989), Heart of Dixie (1989), Elvis (1990, TV series)
Before leaving the entertainment industry to become a minister, Michael St. Gerard spent much of his short career playing the King — or someone like him. His second of 15 acting roles was as an Elvis type in John Waters’s Hairspray (1988), and a year later he graduated to small roles as Elvis himself in the god-awful Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! and the painfully dated desegregation drama Heart of Dixie. Out of those three films, only Waters’s has had much staying power. And despite the quality of St. Gerard’s performance, neither did his biggest role as Elvis in the ABC TV series of the same name.
The series takes its time meandering through Elvis’s early years as he finds his voice in Memphis, and it was canceled after 13 episodes, at which point Elvis’s career was barely getting off of the ground. But St. Gerard got all that work as Elvis for a reason. Clad in a leather motorcycle jacket with a little bit of mascara and a roguish smile on his pursed lips, he exudes the sexual magnetism that made this brooding loner irresistible to women.
But more so than physical resemblance, what makes St. Gerard a standout is his stage presence. St. Gerard actually dances like Elvis with the same intuitive looseness and squirrelly energy. The one thing that threatens to throw everything off is St. Gerard’s Yankee accent. But when he’s lip syncing and shaking his hips in thrall to the god of rock and roll, that hardly matters.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Elvis (2005, TV miniseries)
If Jonathan Rhys Meyers is trying as hard as Austin Butler to imitate Elvis Presely’s speaking voice, he doesn’t show it. Meyers’s southern accent, sad eyes, and overall presence in the 2005 CBS miniseries Elvis (a.k.a Elvis — The Early Years) are all right on with an ease that belies the effort Irish-born Meyers must have put in to create such a representation. Meyers doesn’t do his own singing in the series, but neither do most Elvii. The difference here is that Meyers is lip syncing to Elvis’s actual vocal tracks, not those of an impersonator, which goes a long way toward enhancing the sense of realism.
But as a jaunt through Elvis-related media proves time and again, an accurate vocal impression is only part of the overall challenge of playing Elvis Presley. Meyers bounces across the stage like his legs are made of rubber bands every time Elvis gets behind a microphone, moving with an easy charisma that has Elvis leading the beat, not the other way around. Meyers lets Elvis move through him, the way Elvis let the music lead his own movements. According to Meyers, the key to his Golden Globe–winning performance was to think of Elvis as a poor boy with something to prove rather than a pop-culture icon — which makes sense given that less successful Elvii do tend to forget the man behind the image.
Elvis: The Early Years is streaming on Freevee.
Kurt Russell, Elvis (1979)
The first TV Elvis is still the best TV Elvis. Kurt Russell starred as the King in an epic, nearly three hour made-for-TV movie that aired in February 1979, less than two years after Elvis’s death in August 1977. Russell was in the midst of transitioning from a child star into an adult actor when he made the film, and the role would prove fortuitous in more ways than one. Russell was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, the first (and one of the only) times he received accolades from a major awards body. It was also the project that first teamed Russell with director John Carpenter, who would go on to give Russell some of his most iconic roles.
Russell hits all the right notes as Elvis. His movie-star charisma makes him impossible to ignore, and he actually does look a lot like Presely with the right hair and in the right outfit. There are no wasted shots with Carpenter at the helm, but Russell makes the most of even small moments; in a scene of him driving around listening to the radio, it’s like he’s possessed by the beat. The devilish smile on his face when he’s playing guitar is wholly believable, as is the way he moves his shoulders like an old-fashioned lawn sprinkler. He’s not the best lip syncer in the world, but he really feels the Elvis spirit bouncing around onstage like a toddler who’s eaten too much sugar.
He’s sheepish but confident, funny but volatile, and he spends a lot of time messing with his hair. Most important, he never tries too hard. Late in the film, Carpenter films Elvis rehearsing “Suspicious Minds” with his band at home in L.A.; as soon as the song ends, Russell shakes out the energy of the performance with a cathartic air punch. It feels like an unplanned, unguarded moment even if it most definitely wasn’t.
But it’s his palpable soulfulness that puts him on top. Russell’s Elvis is a lonely, misunderstood man who is always trying to buy people’s love because deep down he doesn’t think he deserves it. He feels intensely, and though he’s loyal to his weepy, clingy mother (Shelley Winters), what he really needs is the validation of screaming audiences to prove to him he really is worth something. Russell’s Elvis watches James Dean movies alone in the dark, ruminating on his lack of acting talent. He’s a restless, yearning figure always searching for something that’s just beyond his reach, prompting Priscilla (Season Hubley) to ask, “What are you running from? What are you so afraid of?” The real tragedy of it is he doesn’t seem to know.
Elvis (1979) is available on Blu-ray.