Linda Zuck writes: Friday sees the release in the UK of Elvis and Nixon. Starring Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey, practiced presidential impersonator, as Nixon, the film is the truly bizarre story of the day in December 1970 when the leader of the western world met the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis had turned up unannounced at the White House to meet President Richard Nixon and the encounter was documented by the official White House photographer. If the movie doesn’t entirely do the story justice (here the review at Roger Ebert’s site) I’d like to think the documentary about the encounter Illuminations made (and that I produced) over twenty years ago certainly did.
In 1970 militant anti-Vietnam war protest was at its height. Nixon was holed up at the White House and felt practically under siege. He couldn’t begin to relate to the resistance. Elvis meanwhile, deeply patriotic and determined to fight the ‘war on drugs’ despite his addiction to prescription drugs, was a keen collector of police badges. He was desperate to get hold of the ultimate – a BNDD badge, issued by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He thought that by offering his services to the president as an agent at large, he might finally come to possess one.
The King Meets the President was broadcast in January 1995 as part of Channel Four’s Without Walls arts series. It was enormous fun to make, not least because director Mick Conefrey and I spent a memorable night in a bar in Memphis with members of Elvis’s legendary ‘Memphis Mafia’ entourage. The programme was only cleared for one UK transmission, which was so often the case then. Dealing with Elvis’s estate to clear use of his music was complex to say the least.
Given that the internet was then in its infancy, I can’t remember how we managed to track down some of our interviewees, who included former Nixon aides Bud Krogh, Dwight Chapin and Jeff Donfeld, and Elvis entourage members Jerry Schilling and Sonny West, with insightful cultural context from Greil Marcus and Victor Bockris.
We are prevented from putting the whole programme online because of archive and music copyright reasons, but here is an extract to give you a sense of the documentary. I somehow doubt that the movie is able to convey the strangeness of quite what took place during those 20 or so minutes in the Oval Office. Resplendent in a purple velvet suit, a diamond tipped cane and a gold belt from Las Vegas and accompanied by Bodyguard Sonny West and close friend Jerry Schilling, Elvis entered the White House late morning on 21 December 1970.
Nixon Aide Bud Krogh picks up the story of the encounter:
Elvis left the White House with his treasured badge and apparently for the rest of his life he never went anywhere without it. In our film Jerry Schilling explains quite why it was so important to him:
that badge meant to Elvis Presley that not only was he respected as an entertainer, he was respected as an American.