Listen to this article
Elvis has entered the building. The big, round one on London’s North Greenwich peninsula, which started life as a pointless celebration of the new millennium but is now paying its way by celebrating the popular culture protagonists of the old millennium. Elvis at the O2 plunders more than 300 artefacts from the Presley family’s Graceland archives: Elvis’s school reports, his record collection, his pink Cadillac, his weirdly spangled jumpsuits. It is a curious mixture of the banal and the resplendent, and none the worse for that. The recipes for genius are concocted from strange fruit, and it is right to celebrate them in all their diversity.
I found myself riveted — who wouldn’t? — in the room dedicated to the 1968 Comeback Special, commemorating the television show that proved to a sceptical public that the 33-year-old still had the musical chops to make a further contribution to his art form. A helpful assistant asked if I had any questions. I was experiencing an emotional moment next to the black leather suit, so I decided to play it flip. “Yes, how did he get his teeth so white?” My interlocutor didn’t miss a beat. “Because he was from another planet.”
I knew what he meant, and he knew that I knew, and I found myself wishing that more museum staff could slip so effortlessly into lightly ironic magical realism. He told me that there had been a worry that the show contained too many images of Elvis but their concerns were dispelled when a member of the management team said simply: “Hey, it’s Elvis!” On they went, plastering the place with more and more portraits, filmed interviews, rollicking performances. Of course you can’t take your eyes off them. Put aside, for one moment, the voice and the gyrations. Was there ever another being of such physical beauty?
But the show is not all transcendent sexual allure. Not quite. Here are some of the quirky details I noted on a quick trip around Elvis at the O2:
● Elvis’s report from East Tupelo School for the 1943-44 academic year had an advertisement on its front page. (Sometimes you get a sharp reminder of why America is the country that it is.) It was for Glasgow’s Drug Store. “We make our own ice cream”, it says cunningly, before adding a more reassuring note for the over-nines: “Special care given to doctors’ prescriptions.”
● A letter from Elvis’s record label, RCA, to his infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, giving a detailed breakdown of sales of his first few singles. By far the highest sales — 1.4m — are recorded by “Heartbreak Hotel”. The letter, which contains nothing more interesting than that, is marked “confidential”. You would think that nothing would be more worthy of widespread and immediate dissemination than Elvis’s sales figures. Was it a guilty secret? Did they not believe what they read?
● The “gilded” telephone that was next to Elvis’s bed in Graceland has not weathered well. Its handset has lost its golden hue almost entirely. Talk is cheap; so was his telephone. Why?
● Elvis loved the Beatles. Here is his own personal copy of “Hey Jude”, which he went on to cover in concert. He has written something on the 45’s label: “LOOK”. Then there is an arrow pointing to the time of the song: “7:11”. A pop song really could last that long. Who was the arrow intended for? Was it an aide-mémoire? Must aim longer, higher, greater!
● Among the small pile of books from Elvis’s coffee table are Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and the Warren report on the Kennedy assassination.
● A job reference says Elvis is a “rather flashily dressed, playboy-type”, but that this is “denied by fact [that he] has worked hard [the] past three summers”. Elvis, it adds, “wants a job dealing with people”. It was a solemn aspiration. No one ever failed to remark on Elvis’s good manners. The only person he treated with contempt was himself.
You can see anything you want at Elvis at the O2 apart, of course, from the full story. That is not what this exhibition is about. There are sensitivities to be borne in mind: a wife, a daughter. There is a controlling estate shaping the myth, determined to leave out its pathetic denouement. No one wants to leave this show on a downer.
And yet, if Elvis is to be treated as a serious cultural phenomenon, we need to see the whole narrative arc, the rise and the fall, as chronicled in Peter Guralnick’s heart-rending two-part biography. Elvis’s jumpsuits are legitimate museum artefacts but so are the piles of pills that finished him. If Elvis speaks with rare eloquence of his time, let him speak authentically and integrally.
But it may be too soon for all that. The only museum-quality show that has come close to capturing the complexities of popular music’s golden era is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s still-touring exhibition on David Bowie. But, then again, Bowie was always an artful commentator on his own celebrity. Elvis is a trickier proposition: a simpler artist, a simpler story, but harder to believe in. Almost, but not quite, otherworldly.
Exhibition continues until August 31 2015, elvisattheo2.com
To listen to culture columns, visit ft.com/culturecast
Get alerts on Elvis Presley when a new story is published