When news of Lisa Marie Presley’s death, from cardiac arrest at just 54, zipped around the world on Friday morning, millions immediately turned to what proved to be her final appearance, at Tuesday night’s Golden Globes, in Hollywood. There’s a terrible symbolism as she stands beside the actor Austin Butler, who would fittingly win the best-actor award for his mesmeric and sometimes eerie portrayal of her father, Elvis, in Baz Luhrmann’s eponymous film.
Such was the fixation on her appearance and fragility – “something was off”, the Fox presenter Billy Bush, who interviewed her at the awards ceremony, would claim in retrospect – that, as usual, sharpness of clarity of what Presley said was overlooked. There’s a terrible warmth and poignancy about that interview now, because Tuesday was a happy night for the Presley family. “It was mind-blowing,” she said of the experience of watching Butler all but reincarnate her late father on the screen. “I didn’t know what to do with myself when I saw it. I had to take, like, five days to process it because it was so incredible and spot on and so cathartic that I can’t even describe what it meant.”
In the auditorium, the cameras lingered on Lisa Marie and her mother, Priscilla, when Butler gave a wonderfully gracious acceptance speech. If both women were looking at Butler as though he were a kind of shaman, it’s easy to understand why. The Californian’s face contains flickers of Elvis Presley’s lip-curling beauty, and he speaks in a similar laconic drawl.
Over the course of Luhrmann’s curiously weightless film, Butler succeeds in reducing the bloated legend of Elvis and presenting to the world – not least his former wife and only child – the singer and entertainer as a human being and a sensational talent. Butler, it seemed, managed to gift mother and daughter a version of the person they have tried to preserve even as the tabloids, the music industry and millions of fans tried to gobble him up. It is obvious they formed a close bond over the film, and they sit there elated, lost in the moment with who knows what thoughts and emotions travelling between them.
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Lisa Marie Presley was just nine years old when her father died, also of cardiac arrest, at the age of 42, in the summer of 1977. Her parents had divorced when she was four, so she moved between her mother’s modest apartment in Los Angeles and Graceland, the Memphis mansion of dreamy southern excess where her father spent his last decade.
News events turned more slowly and were absorbed more deeply then. The death of the King was presented as an epochal moment. By 1980 his daughter was the sole heir to his $100 million estate. The big question for her was how to step out from under that dazzling shadow of jewels and famous quiff; how to make her voice heard beside one of the most sonorous and recognisable singing voices of the century.
Needless to say, it wasn’t easy: she became one of the many late-20th century kids hazed out on drugs – and became a cover favourite for US titles, her every relationship and mistake reported. She came of age pre-internet, when the tabloid focus was narrower but also more scrutinising. Littler wonder, then, that she was 35 years old and a parent herself when she summoned the nerve to record music of her own. The title of her debut album, To Whom It May Concern, from 2003, hints at the reticence. Putting herself in the spotlight meant submitting to publicity, to probing questions on the insatiable lust for gossip and information about what it felt like to be Elvis’s daughter.
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She handled those with sharp articulacy and poise. “I’m so bloody nervous,” she confessed as she sat down before David Letterman to promote the album. “Why?” the host asked. “Cos you’ve been ripping on me for the past seven years,” she shot back, meaning that he, like all the other smarmy late-night hosts, had made gleeful fun of the two years she spent married to Michael Jackson, whose free-float to notoriety was well under way. She was always an honest interviewee, while reserving the right to maintain her privacy, her dignity. “It’s not been touched,” she remarked of returning to Graceland now that it’s a museum piece. “It’s like it’s been capsuled. It’s odd. Beautiful sadness, you could say.”
There was always a sense of bullying and hectoring about Letterman’s brand of “fun”, because he held all the power over his guests: it was as if they were coming into the spider’s web. But Presley owned him by the end of their seven minutes. And that night again demonstrated just how thoroughly Elvis haunted the American imagination. This was not just any studio but the Ed Sullivan studio, the very place where, 46 years earlier, Elvis’s performance was filmed from the waist up only, for fear that his gyrating hips would cause a wildfire of wantonness across the Great Plains. “It’s intimidating,” his daughter said when asked about preparing to perform there herself. But she did. And she could sing. And she was at once reminiscent of and entirely separate from her father as a stage presence.
Presley wrote the material for both albums and surprised reviewers with a dark country sound with arresting and sometimes confrontational lyrics. She was a natural performer but low-key. Being who she was meant she could record with whoever, whenever, but her most recent album, Storm and Grace, from 2012, drew widespread acclaim for drawing out the underlying melancholy and blues/country influences that informed her father’s voice. Against the odds, she had done it and set an example for her own children. She has 14-year-old twins, Harper and Finlay Aaron, while her elder daughter, Riley Keough, is now making her way as an actor – without the weight of her grandfather’s surname chained to her.
Presley has remained best friends with Riley’s father, Danny – first of her four husbands – and has spoken of the ongoing devastation after the death, by self-inflicted gunshot, of their 20-year-old son, Benjamin, two years ago. That may have been one heartbreak too many even for such a resilient soul. It’s hard to know how much of a sense of true freedom Lisa Marie Presley experienced as she made her way through what she has described as her “fishbowl life”. There is at least the consolation that the release of the Elvis movie was such a source of pride and joy to her and the family.
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For her memories of being with him are, of course, the one thing that the outside world could never get at. It was the one question Lisa Marie Presley always brushed off, what she remembered of the Elvis Presley as a father. “Something has gotta be left that’s mine, somehow,” she said.