A fascinating piece went up on THR this morning, one which chronicles the difficulties and complexities faced by four very different Elvis biopic projects that are in some stage of pre-production.
You might be surprised to hear that there are so many projects about the superstar singer, and almost none of them with any particular heat. That’s largely because they’re mostly indie projects, with one smaller studio project that lacks any attached talent. The projects breakdown like this:
The Identical – A $3m indie taking a faith-based approach to the story, and centering around an actual Elvis impersonator.
Elvis & Nixon – A <$10m indie that currently has the most talent attached, with Eric Bana set to play Presley and produce. The project was written by and would be the directorial debut of actor Cary Elwes. It takes a narrow, anecdotal approach to Elvis’ life by tackling only one brief anecdote.
Fame & Fortune – A $15m independent film that would peek into the darker parts of Elvis’ life through the view of his bodyguard Sonny West, who had an intimate view of the singer’s abuse of painkillers, and rocky personal relationships. The film would be based on West’s memoir of the same name, and The US Vs. John Lennon director John Scheinfeld is attached as of a few months ago.
Last Train To Memphis – A Fox 2000 studio film, but one that has been percolating for years in development hell with no director or actors. Based off a biography of the same name, it’s expected to be a fairly traditional biopic in the vein of Ray or Walk The Line. The most recent draft of the script was apparently tackled by John Fusco (Young Guns, Hidalgo).
Facing these projects is a litany of roadblocks and rights complications that mostly trace back to CKX Inc., which owns or has a share in the vast majority of the Elvis catalogue and remaining image/licensing rights. Considering the artist still pulls in something like +$50m a year to this day, they are obviously quite invested in maintaining that cash cow. How difficult that will make it to license films based on content and budget is tough to say, and CKX maintains that they haven’t entered into negotiations with any of these projects as of yet. It seems obvious that any particularly edgy story is not going to be looked upon favorably by a company looking to maintain a fantasy image of the singer and thus not threaten their Graceland tourism and music sales. Of course, I’m sure that competes with their own interest in having a new generation of kids exposed to Elvis through a large-scale Hollywood biopic. A high stakes financial pickle to be sure.
Most of these projects are actually looking to dodge the bulk of the licensing issues with varying techniques that involve relying on Presley’s public domain performances or the narrow slices of his catalogue that are controlled by less domineering parties. As in Walk Hard, relying on covers could also alleviate expense and raise fewer red flags with the litigiously protective CKX.
I have no doubt some of these smaller projects will break through, come and then go rather quietly, but I’d expect a more traditional Hollywood biopic to make its way through the system at some point. That said, I think I find the Sonny West bodyguard project the most fascinating, as it would allow a story to tackle the darker edges of Elvis’ story, but also maintain him as a mythical figure by keeping some distance. I’m much more interested in that than just another whitewashed, by-the-numbers biopic with an actor taking on some highly affected, ultimately distracting impersonation to “capture” Elvis.
The entire article is a good read, so I’d suggest hoping over and giving it a look if you have any interest in the cinematic future of the King of Rock n’ Roll.