While researching "Elvis and Gladys," her 1985 book on Elvis Presley's relationship with his mother, writer Elaine Dundy unearthed an odd claim: that Elvis Presley's great-great-grandmother, Nancy Burdine Tackett, was Jewish.
Tackett's daughter had a daughter who had Gladys. Jewishness is passed through the mother, according to religious law, and there's no expiration date. This would mean that Elvis Presley could be considered a Jew.
No one paid much attention to this revelation, though 13 years later, an article in the Wall Street Journal mentioned it in a story on the Elvis Inn, a restaurant/gas station/tourist trap outside Jerusalem. Canadian film producer Evan Beloff saw it, and became so entranced by the notion that he spent three years working on a documentary, "Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots."
"Schmelvis" had its U.S. premiere earlier this week here at Makor, a Jewish cultural center on the Upper West Side. As the film opens, Schmelvis -- a Montreal Elvis impersonator who decorates his white jumpsuit with Stars of David -- makes a dramatic entrance in an old-age home, where his decrepit audience can hardly stay awake. The people in Makor's theater, mostly in their thirties and forties, laughed uproariously.
The kind of documentary that might kindly be described as "highly personal," the meandering "Schmelvis" reveals little journalistic research, spending scant effort on the central mystery. Nor can it be classified as a "mockumentary," along the lines of "This Is Spinal Tap." Beloff may have invented a new genre, the dorkumentary.
"Schmelvis" follows six Jewish guys -- Beloff, some friends, his rabbi, Schmelvis, director Max Wallace -- and one non-Jewish crew member as they load up in a Winnebago and head South to Elvis country. The tubby rabbi is a real wisenheimer -- "If he's Elvis, then I'm Robert Redford," he says upon meeting Schmelvis -- but his real function is to say kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, over Elvis's grave.
The guys in the Winnebago bicker, they pontificate, they crack jokes. Visiting Graceland and Elvis's birthplace of Tupelo, Miss., they stick microphones in people's faces and try to goad them into saying something anti-Semitic. After the hapless film crew realizes that no one in the American South seems even remotely interested in Elvis's Jewish ancestry, they visit Israel, looking for meaning, a purpose, and a point.
A weekly paper in Toronto has hailed the film as "Seinfeldesque."
During a Q&A session that followed the Makor premiere, the filmmakers trawled for more compliments. "People in Canada keep telling us that this film has a New York Jewish sensibility, but we're just backwater Canadian Jews," said director Wallace, who is actually from the Bronx. "Is it New York or Canadian?"
"It's Canadian," yelled a woman in Row 9.
The first question came from a man in a yarmulke, who couldn't help wondering: "Was Elvis circumcised?"
For a definitive answer, the filmmakers turned to a private investigator who briefly appears in "Schmelvis." His name is Steve Rambam and he has brought Nazi war criminals hiding in Canada to justice. "He was not," says Rambam authoritatively. "It was in the autopsy report."
Back home in Canada, "Schmelvis" aired on Bravo last month. (A companion book of the same name, on the making of the film, has been published by ECW Press.) The movie also was featured at several Jewish film festivals in Canada. "Schmelvis" has been submitted to the Washington Jewish Film Festival; if accepted, it will play in December. "I think it's going to be a hit in all the Jewish film festivals," said Ari Cohen, the film's production manager and second-unit sound and camera man. "Jewish film festivals have so many somber and serious movies."
Producer Beloff agreed. "I think that's part of the reason festival directors are jumping on it. It's not a Holocaust film," he said. Beloff, 33, wears long Elvis-like sideburns. "It's a very unique film. It's kind of [making fun of] the whole Jewish identity thing. People find that refreshing."
For the most part, the Makor audience was taken with the movie. "It was very funny. Whatever the subject, if you put seven Jews in a Winnebago, that's trouble to begin with," said Diana Gold, a Manhattan film producer.
But she also discovered that her newfound perception of a Jewish Elvis resonated deeply. "Within my own Jewishness, there's an association of understanding the troubles of the world, and of taking on the troubles of the world, and that was so much of Elvis's appeal," she said. "Now I don't know whether that was a coincidence or not."
Miriam Schechter, a 36-year-old social worker who shares Presley's swarthy good looks, said after seeing the film that she views Elvis a little differently: "Now the longer I look at him, the more he looks like the men in my father's family."
Attorney Phyllis Harlem said she enjoyed the premiere. "It was very Jewish humor. Those guys with their back-and-forth, they were just like Woody Allen." Then she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. "But don't you think the premise was a little bit labored?"
|(The original Washington Post article can be viewed at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26350-2002Jul4.html.)|