Way Down in Dixie
1st June 2015
Plunged into Elvis world, straight from the airport. The Peabody Hotel is where The King famously signed his first proper record deal. Twenty hours into the shoot I can understand why – it’s not just the Frenchy carpeting or the Duck Master who delights guests twice daily when he leads his Mergansers across the lobby to the tinkly fountain. It’s the coolness of all that marble. Outside, Memphis is melting.
When we pack to drive to Tupelo, Holy Ground Zero for fans of rock and roll, and much trodden by generations of documentary makers chronicling his rise to glory, it’s about Regulo Seven, 250 degrees.
The valet service needs 20 minutes’ notice to have the vehicles ready. There’s about a million dollars-worth of SUVs lined up, and persons in rhubarb and custard Pierre Cardin-inspired uniforms ready to open the doors very quickly. The task is get the trolley full of kit from the back vestibule (-40), over the tarmac (+40) and into the car (-20), without alerting the cardio-vascular system to a temperature fluctuation that homo sapiens were never intended to experience in twenty seconds.
Long hot drive South into Mississippi. Check into the Hilton Garden Inn, Main Street, Tupelo. There’s a steak house across the car park but the thought of anything hotter than a cucumber is horrifying.
Location A is the Elvis Birthplace. Red hot. The homestead was and still is a rustic shack of the type called Shotgun. I first came across the name courtesy of David Byrne. The minimalist design means a gun-toting passerby could discharge a sawn-off at the front door and comfortably reckon on dispatching the resident relaxing on the back porch, without requiring the special Magic ammunition that offed JFK. I’ve filmed in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but our camera can’t go in here. That's how sacred it is.
Joanna delivers a great PTC about the place and the very humble circumstances of the Presley family, while relaxing in a wooden swing set and oscillating gently across our un-moving frame. DoP Jaimie Gramston is, like myself, a fan of the static camera, but also the slider. Jo sashays left-right across to the rustic church in which toddler Elvis first sang and according to legend, first wiggled, as the F5 counter-tracks at turf level. Gorgeous.
Move to Main Street and the railway tracks Elvis was from the wrong side of. In London I’d planned a long shot to a distant Joanna carrying a white umbrella, stepping over them, the focal point set for the wobbly heat haze. It’s so wobbly Jo looks like Lumley of Arabia after a gallon of hooch.
Thankfully the Tupelo Hardware Store is nearby. For an emporium devoted to everything a pioneer might need, it’s woefully unencumbered by air conditioning units. Ceiling fans spin lazily, perfect for a Levis commercial, but actually making the hot air hotter.
This is the sort of place that inspires Hardware Lust. They sell nuts, bolts, chains, guns, hats, Hurricane lamps and sewing machines. A request for a single nail causes no rumpus. In Elvis’ day, they sold guitars, and they still do. Joanna stands on the very spot, marked by a sign made in the sign-making department, and hears how little Elvis came to this counter really wanting a rifle, but his mum Ethel thought an instrument preferable. There was music in the family, and he had a good voice, they said. He might even be on the radio.