Schmelvis: the ‘King’ as Jewish

Evan Beloff, co-producer of a new documentary that demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that American rock idol Elvis Presley was Jewish according to halakha or Jewish law, was only half-joking when he said that the film uses Elvis “as a metaphor for identity — I think it’s a quest film about Jewish identity.” Titled “Schmelvis: Searching For The King’s Jewish Roots,” the feature documentary is slated to premiere at the opening of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on April 20, and may go into U.S. theatrical release later this year.

It is not clear whether Elvis, who died in 1977, ever really knew that his maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Burdine Tackett, was Jewish, or understood the halakhic principle of matrilinear descent through which (since Nancy’s daughter’s daughter gave birth to his mother) he would have been identified as a Jew. But he was unquestionably aware of some sort of familial Jewish connection. Although he was a practicing Christian, he was philosemitic to the point of wearing a golden Chai around his neck and a kitschy wristwatch that alternatingly flashed a Jewish star and a Christian cross. As the film reveals, he even put a Magen David on his mother’s tombstone; officials of his Graceland estate later removed it.

“Schmelvis” offers many such revelations, including the facts that Presley, as a teenager, had Orthodox Jewish neighbors for whom he acted as “Shabbes goy”; that he once made a $150,000 donation to a Memphis Jewish charity, [no semi-colon] and that he enjoyed warm relations with many Jews, including his doctor and his tailor, Bernard Lansky. “I was clothier to the King,” Lansky boasts. “I put his first suit and his last suit on. I made him sharp. I made him what he was.”

Beloff said he got the idea for the film from a 1998 Wall Street Journal article about Presley’s Jewish roots, and soon enlisted the aid of co-producer Ari Cohen and writer-director Max Wallace. “We took one of the biggest Christian pop icons in our culture and we were able to show how Jewish culture informed his life,” the 32-year-old Montreal filmmaker told the Forward proudly.

“Schmelvis” is anything but a traditional film documentary; indeed, it is more about the filmmakers than their chosen subject. As viewers will quickly discern, it’s a film about the making of a film —and one that seems freighted with a rather ponderous thesis. Should we care if Elvis was Jewish? Is it significant? The filmmakers wrestle indeterminately with that central question.

“I knew I was in over my head — I needed some help,” said Beloff, who provides the film’s Chandleresque narration. Not the least problem was that there’s not a single Elvis song in “Schmelvis.” “The licensing fees were absolutely astronomical — tens of thousands of dollars,” Beloff explained. “There’s no way the Elvis estate would want to be associated with this film, not even in the title.” Yet the film holds together well and entertains us even as it strays down its peculiar and comic cul-de-sac.

As it happens, the title derives from a Montreal-area ultra-Orthodox-Jewish Elvis imitator, Dan Hartal, who calls himself Schmelvis and who performs at geriatric homes with born-again zeal; he says that if he ever met Elvis he’d like nothing better than “to put some tefillin on the guy.” The producers invite Schmelvis to join them on a bizarre cinematic odyssey to the American South, where they intend to seek evidence of Presley’s Jewish roots and gauge the local reaction. Schmelvis, who claims a spiritual connection with Presley, quickly comes on board.

In a brilliant stroke, the producers also get the idea of inviting prominent Montreal Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who readily puts his orthodox “hechshur” on the decidedly unorthodox adventure, and adds a witty commentary to it even as he raises pointed questions. “Wouldn’t the Gentile people down south react as if we were kidnapping their boy?” he asks during a scene in his office. Interviewed by the Forward, the rabbi explained why he so readily signed on to the film: “When I first heard about it, I thought it might be a serious catalyst for some people with common issues of loss, identity and assimilation. I thought people would see in Elvis’s life and his lost identity much that has happened to American Jews. It’s a paradigm for a large swath of American Jews that has lost touch with their roots.”

Soon their Winnebago is rolling south to Elvis’s birthplace of Tupelo, Miss., to the strains of a schmaltzy borscht-belt song, “I’ve Got A Mammy But She Don’t Come From Alabamy.” First stop: a local cemetery, where, after a daylong search, the producers fail to locate the tombstone of Elvis’s supposedly Lithuanian-Jewish ancestor, who died about 1917. Jewish genealogists will find the setting and mission familiar: for many of us, the cemetery is a compulsory part of the modern Jewish quest for identity.

The next stop is Memphis, where they interview some of The King’s Jewish associates; this section nicely fleshes out the skeletal thesis and has a reassuring “documentary” feel to it. They also attend what they call Elvis’s “23rd yahrzeit” outside the Graceland mansion, where they encounter scores of pilgrims, whose candles flicker like votive offerings in a church. Many who hear the report about their idol being Jewish only shrug: they’re used to hearing weird things about him. Others seem to welcome the news. “I don’t care if Elvis is Black, Buddhist, Jewish or Moslem,” says one woman. “Elvis is Elvis. Elvis is the King.”

As the filmmakers soon realize, the gathering itself is the real religious story. It’s clear that Elvis’s posthumous charisma smacks of spiritual significance. “He’s a modern hero,” Rabbi Poupko deadpans as he walks amid the crowd. “He comforts them when they’re lonely. He’s there with them. He lifts them up.”

The next day the film crew say kaddish over Elvis’s grave; leaving the cemetery, the Rabbi completes the Christian analogy. The first Christians “took a man and made him into a God,” he observes. “Who’d they take? A good Jew. They did it again with Elvis. They took another child of our people and made a God out of him.”

The producers suffer another setback when Schmelvis backs out of an appearance at a Memphis karaoke bar. Desperate for a scene that might “save the film,” they attempt to provoke the locals by suggesting that Elvis should be exhumed and reburied Jewishly. No one takes them seriously. They sink further into a morass of doubt, despair and navel-gazing as they try to rescue their seemingly doomed project. Like true schlemiels, they make a comic virtue of being hard on their luck: That’s all they have left until they discover that Memphis has a “wailing wall” that is a popular site for Elvis fans. A new direction: Israel. Saved!

Granted, it’s a stretch between Graceland and the Holy Land, but Israel boasts a popular Elvis tourist site just outside Jerusalem, which the filmmakers do their best to capitalize on. They also plant a tree in Elvis’s memory and consult the Bible Codes to see if his name is embedded in the Torah. (It is, 61 times.)

On Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda mall, Schmelvis demonstrates his prowess as a Jewish troubadour by singing to puzzled passers-by — not “Love Me Tender,” not “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog,” but rather “Simmin Tov and Mazel Tov.” None of this proves a thing, though, and their quixotic quest gets sillier and more picaresque by the moment.

Ultimately, the coterie of crazed Canadians returns to Memphis for one last try by way of an Elvis impersonator contest. Once again, nothing seems to go right: Schmelvis, who is decked out in his usual yarmulke and glittering cape of Jewish stars, is pulled from the competition at the last moment because organizers suspect he’ll violate their “no religion and no politics” rule. Dejected, they wander next door into a Christian revival meeting — where worshipers pray for their souls in the name of Jesus. Closing credits roll over a wonderful live rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

While representatives of the Toronto festival expressed enthusiasm for “Schmelvis” from the start, Beloff said that the film was rejected by the smaller Montreal and Vancouver Jewish film festivals. He acknowledged that some viewers have found it a clever but self-indulgent exercise without any discernible Jewish substance. “Looking at this project objectively, it’s probably one of the strangest Jewish films made in a long time,” he said. “It’s Bugs Bunny meets Duddy Kravitz. It’s certainly inspired lots of debate and questions, and I like that. A film that encourages debate is an effective film.”

Shlomo Schwartzberg, director of programming of the Toronto festival, said there isn’t a better film with which to open the fest’s 10th season, which features more than 60 films over eight days. “I think it’s a perfect big-night entertainment to open the festival with and get it off to a good running start,” he said. “I don’t doubt that, at the end of the day, they’ll place the film in other festivals.”

So far, two Canadian television networks — Bravo-TV and City-TV — are committing to broadcasting the doc later this year. Meanwhile, a well-known Canadian publishing house, ECW Press, is readying a book about the film for release this month. Its title — what else? — is “Schmelvis.” ♦

© 2002