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Exposing architect of Elvis's downfall

HAD Elvis Presley not died a sad and squalid death on the toilet at his Graceland mansion in 1977, he might well be celebrating his 75th birthday on Friday. You wouldn't think the story of his tragic demise would bear another retelling, yet it did.

The excellent Elvis in Vegas managed to be both compelling and appalling, and did something I didn't believe was possible: it made us loathe the vile 'Colonel' Tom Parker, the real architect of Presley's downfall, even more.

Never in the history of rock'n'roll has an artist been so thoroughly screwed over and in such plain sight, and never has a documentary revealed it so starkly.

Prisoners

Even in an earlier era, the combination of Parker and Vegas seemed to have a toxic effect on Elvis's career. Parker first brought him there for some shows in 1956. But in a town where the ludicrous Liberace (who Presley, in decline, would eventually come to resemble) reigned supreme, Elvis bombed.

As his drummer, DJ Fontana, put it: "People in their 50s and 60s, eating their $100 steaks, they didn't want to be hearing that racket."

But Parker, never one to miss a trick, still turned a profit on the deal. "He took care of business and he didn't take prisoners," added Fontana.

Well, not quite. Parker, real name Dries van Kuijk, an illegal Dutch immigrant who couldn't risk travelling outside the United States (which is why he never allowed Elvis to tour Europe), took one prisoner, Elvis, and shackled him to his wrist for life.

When Elvis went into the army in 1958, Parker sold him down the river and into a Hollywood contract for 29 movies, each one more vapid than the one that had gone before, in just seven years.

Nor did the artistic suffocation stop there. Parker kept the best songwriters of the 60s at arm's length, for fear his charge might enjoy the fresh taste of quality material. He also interfered in the production process, at one point speeding up a live recording -- and making Elvis sound like a chipmunk on cocaine in the process -- in order to squeeze an extra song onto the album.

The one time in his career that Elvis openly defied his master's wishes resulted in his greatest triumph. In 1968 Parker wanted him to record a sappy Christmas TV special full of family friendly seasonal ditties.

Lethal

But Elvis dug his heels in and colluded with the programme's director, Steve Binder. The result was the landmark 1968 comeback special featuring Elvis as the world had rarely seen him, sexy and smouldering, and lethal in black leather.

It seems astonishing now that Elvis's residency at Vegas's International Hotel, which involved a punishing commitment to two shows a night for five years, was viewed at the time as the rebirth of Presley.

Sadly, as the archive footage of an increasingly addled and bloated Elvis stumbling about the stage in silly caped jumpsuits revealed, it was so cheesy you could have melted it on toast.

FOR TOMORROW: Pat reviews FlashForward (RTE2) and gets lost in The Mystery of the Nevada Triangle (C4)

STACEY'S STARS

Elvis in Vegas ****


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