The Music & New POV of the Documentary ‘Elvis: Are You Lonesome Tonight?’

Elvis Presley Rolls Royce Graceland
Courtesy of Reelz

When Elvis Presley recorded his debut single, “That’s All Right,” in 1954, it “changed everything.” So goes the opening of the latest documentary, Are You Lonesome Tonight?, which mines for insights into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (above, at Graceland in 1960).

“What made Elvis tick always fascinated me,” says director Russell Eatough. “How [do] performers generate that mojo? What makes them different from the regular person?”

Are You Lonesome Tonight? follows Presley’s familiar path from a poor Southern boy captivated by both white gospel music and the R&B of the Black community all the way to an obese 42-year-old who, in 1977, suffered a fatal heart attack fueled by prescription drugs. Among the many music clips along the way: the young singer’s galvanizing 1956 appearance in Tupelo, Mississippi, before 20,000 screaming teens and a deeply moving rendition of “Unchained Melody” in Rapid City, South Dakota, months before his death.

But Lonesome veers from the usual account with a POV suggesting that several Presley traits — the need for adulation from his fans, the sense that he was undeserving of his fame, the extravagance and indulgence of every desire — covered a deep survivor’s guilt and emptiness.

The source, according to psychologist Peter Whitmer, author of The Inner Elvis, was the hole left by the loss of his stillborn twin brother, Jessie. In the film, Whitmer recalls that “twinless twin” Presley would visit the grave site. Notes Barbara Hearn Smith, the singer’s hometown girlfriend in Memphis: “That little baby boy had his place in that family all their lives.”

When Presley was 23 and in the Army, he lost his adored mother, Gladys, to hepatitis. His cousin Billy Smith (no relation to Barbara Hearn Smith) — one of the most empathetic interview subjects — tears up remembering how Elvis hugged her casket. In Whitmer’s estimation, “It was a double death: Gladys was his direct link to Jessie.” Former love Smith witnessed his devastation: “I never saw him happy after that, really.”

It’s a heartbreaking statement. Perhaps the only bright side is the fact that billions of fans still connect to his music 43 years after his passing.

Elvis: Are You Lonesome Tonight?, Documentary Premiere, Saturday, November 28, 8/7c, Reelz