Biopics and the importance of historical accuracy
By Kirstie Burgess
One of Elvis Presley’s most famous songs is Hound Dog. You know that one, right?
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
The original song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and recorded by Willie Mae Thornton in 1952. Who was better known as Big Mama Thornton, a legend from the Bay Area blues scene in the 60s, became a household name with “Hound Dog.” It spent 14 weeks on the Billboard R&B charts, seven at No. 1 and sold 500,000 copies.
Big Mama Thornton and “Hound Dog” was credited for elevating Black singers into rock ‘n’ roll status. It was also an anthem for Black women as the song was about a freeloading man who’d worn out his welcome.
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ‘round the door
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ‘round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more
In 1956, Elvis made one of the 250 recordings of the song and his version blew up. At the time, it was common for artists to cover the songs of others. As one Slate writer said, it’s just the way the music industry was then. Elvis tweaked the lyrics and sold more than 10 million copies. His version became the theme song for a rock ‘n’ roll revolution which helped him earn the title King of Rock and Roll.
I learned this in a music history class at Las Positas College. “History of Rock & Roll” in the spring semester of 2018. That’s when I was introduced to Presley and started listening to his music.
Now, I’m counting down the days to the release of the biopic “Elvis” by Baz Luhrmann. The Warner Bros. film stars Austin Butler as Elvis with Tom Hanks as his co-star. It was originally scheduled for November 2021 but has been pushed to June 2022.
Biopics of famous musicians have become very popular in recent years. There is something special about our ability to learn about past eras despite being so far removed. The media age in which we live creates the best kind of libraries. In what other era did you get such a wealth of deep dives into legends and their origins, the context of the times, the correlation to today?
I knew who Presley was. I’d obviously heard his name before, knew what he did. But my only exposure to his music was from the show “Full House” if I’m being honest. But since the class, I’ve been collecting Presley records on vinyl. I watched the HBO doc “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” and learned a lot. That sent me deeper down the Presley rabbit hole.
My goal is to own all 57 of his records. I’m up to 30.
Presley is an example of what gets lost in translation. Everyone knows the name but, at the same time, no one knows him. Presley was a pioneer. There was no one like him. He resonates with people in a way that doesn’t happen often, and his life story has incredible texture. Presley is a window into another time.
But over the decades he’s been reduced to trinkets and gimmicks. He’s become a two dimensional figure on purses, mugs and bobble heads. An entire generation, my generation, misses out on the greatness of an icon and the understanding of his era and impact, because he gets presented in modern culture as someone who weirdos dress up as in Las Vegas.
Biopics serve a great purpose in that sense. They introduce us to artists and icons in ways we haven’t been. That tends to pique interest.
When Queen’s biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” came out, according to Billboard, streaming of the band tripled in the six months after the movie came out, from 588 million to 1.9 billion. Films about Motley Crew, Amy Winehouse and N.W.A. also promoted a spike in the streaming of their music, per the magazine Ultimate Classic Rock.
It’s not necessarily that Elvis needs the bump. In 2019, Elvis was streamed more than 16.5 million hours according to Spotify. People aged 18 to 22 streamed more than 16.5 million hours according to Spotify. People aged 18 to 22 streamed Presley the most at 20%. While people aged 45 to 59 came in at 17%.
Presley didn’t write his songs. He wasn’t a songwriter, though he co-wrote a few according to the magazine American Songwriter. He was a performer and his excellence ranged from dancing on stage to movies to connecting personally on songs like “Separate Ways,” which came out a year before his divorce was final.
In 2015, Spotify launched two programs to illustrate how today’s artists were influenced by Elvis. A Mashable article covered the results of the since-completed Spotify project. For example, Trey Songz, the modern R&B star, was influenced by Presley by virtue of his Smokey Robinson inspiration. Robinson was influenced in part by Gene Pitney, who was influenced by Presley. Lady Gaga, too. Her and Metallica’s influence traces back to Queen, who was influenced by Presley.
History buffs eat this stuff up, but on some level we can all benefit from a course on past legends. If it can’t be a class in college, then biopics hit the spot.
That’s why I can’t wait for this Elvis one to drop. It’d be nice to have some Presley fans to talk to.