As conspiracy theories go, it’s hard to whip up too much commitment to the farfetched notion that Elvis Presley faked his death.
It’s a nice idea, though — if only because fans would love to believe that he never left the building.
Maybe the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” disappeared 39 years ago, on Aug. 16, 1977, because his life was in danger. Some contend he went into the Witness Protection Program after taking part in a crime syndicate sting operation.
Maybe it was a marketing and merchandising ploy. A half-dozen of his posthumous record releases, beginning with a live version of My Way in October 1977, were chart-topping hits, after all. And his estate is worth far more today, in death, than it ever was when he was alive.
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Or maybe, as actor Jonathan Nation suggests, Elvis was simply ready to step out of the spotlight.
“He was so much larger than life, famous everywhere, and this was before the age of social media,” says Nation, who plays the title role in a new movie called Elvis Lives! “He must have gotten to the point where he was like, ‘I want to turn this off and be able to walk down the street as a regular person.’ ”
What’s more likely, of course, is that Presley, one of the cultural icons of the 20th century, passed away at Graceland, his Memphis mansion, at age 42, felled by a heart condition exacerbated by drug abuse.
But if you prefer to entertain the notion that one of our greatest music industry icons didn’t really die in the 1970s, Elvis Lives! will feed the fantasy. The movie premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on AXS TV.
The story begins two months before the rockabilly rebel’s supposed death.
Viewers will meet a man hip-deep in troubles: plagued by health issues and drug addiction, concerned that his golden singing voice is failing him, feeling unfulfilled by how things are going for him.
This is when he embraces a new challenge, teaming up with the FBI to get dirt on the Fraternity, a racketeering ring. But after Operation Fountain Pen concludes, his life is threatened and his loved ones are in danger.
Ultimately, the Elvis Lives! version of the story leads to Presley faking his death and going underground as Jesse Garon. (Die-hard fans will instantly grasp the meaning behind that name.)
If Presley’s death really were a hoax, it would answer questions that fans have puzzled over for years, among them: why no one cashed in on his life insurance policy, why the name on his gravestone reads “Elvis Aaron Presley” (even though his parents spelled it “Aron”), why the body at his open-casket funeral didn’t look quite right to people and why there have been so many Elvis sightings over the years.
The movie deals with all of these issues in a tongue-in-cheek way.
“It’s not a biography,” Nation says. “It’s more of magical ‘what if?’ I hope people can watch the film and totally escape into it. I hope they don’t analyze it, but just say, ‘This is fun, let’s just enjoy it.’ ”
It’s worth noting that Nation is a character actor, not an Elvis impersonator, and that he doesn’t particularly look like the King.
“I had never performed as Elvis before this, but it wasn’t hard to hop into it,” he says. “Once I had the hair, the makeup and the wardrobe, it was easy to start saying the lines as he would.”
It also helped that Nation is a huge fan.
“My favorite Elvis song is, well, I have two that I really love,” he says. “I love Suspicious Minds (a No. 1 hit in 1969). I can remember as a kid hearing it on the radio in rotation with other songs. When I hear it now, it takes me back to when I was a kid listening to the radio.
“I also loved his version of Bridge Over Troubled Water (which was recorded in 1970). Every time I hear it, it’s like I hear it for the first time, and it really moves me. It’s really powerful. It’s so good.”
To prepare, the actor studied YouTube videos of Elvis backstage with his buddies, hoping to get a feel for what the superstar was like when his guard was lowered and he was just “a regular guy.”
“Watching those videos of how he interacted with his friends was very enlightening,” Nation says.
It is often said after someone’s passing that the person “died too soon” and that certainly was the case with Presley. At age 42, he quite possibly could have had another big chapter or two in his celebrated career, which also included film stardom.
“Toward the end, he was starting to slowly get back into health,” Nation says. “So maybe he could have had another decade of hit songs and movies.
“I also think maybe that he would have wanted to purse other interests and try to live his life to the fullest beyond show business.”
Elvis Lives! is essentially an exercise in cinematic wish fulfillment.
“He was such a beloved star. His fans still don’t want to accept that he’s gone,” Nation says. “They want to believe that he’s out there somewhere, doing what he loves. We want a happy ending to the story.”
- 8 p.m. Tuesday
- AXS TV