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A Conversation with Music Author Alan Light

Nenad Georgievski By

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AAJ: What was the impetus for you to pursue the idea of an Elvis documentary?

AL: The initial thought is "what's left to say about Elvis?" But then that was quickly followed by the realization that, while there are some extraordinary books about him, no one had actually attempted to seriously look at his story with sound and picture—there are the concert/tour documentaries, but nothing that looked more broadly at his impact and his legacy.

AAJ: What was your primary aim in making of this film?

AL: From our first conversation, Thom and I talked about how the importance of Elvis is really lost to the world—that if you're below a certain age, you have no real relationship to Elvis. All that's left, for several generations now, is Elvis impersonators and the white jumpsuit and Elvis weddings in Las Vegas —the cartoon is the only thing that survives, and the sense of what he did musically and how he changed the world have just disappeared. It's like everyone knows his name but nobody knows why. So we really wanted to examine what was important about him, that whether you like his music or not, you could understand what his music had accomplished.

AAJ: What were some of the challenges involved in the making of this project?

AL: Working against those goofy images of Fat Elvis in Vegas. Any time we showed him in the jumpsuit, it just felt like it was impossible to see beyond that or to hear what he was doing. And the second half of the story—Elvis in the movies and Elvis in the 70s—was tough because we wanted to make clear the disappointments but also try to understand them, see what led to the decisions he made, and also not just feel like a long slide toward a terrible end that we already know is coming. The person who really made a huge difference, who provided some of the material that really locked in the points we were trying to make, was Tom Petty. He was the very last interview we did for the film, and of course it was one of the final interviews that he gave before his death. But he was so good and clear and specific and really brought home a few very central concepts for us—obviously the emotional impact of hearing from him greatly amplified after he passed, but the edit was already done, and he was just as prominent in the film, before that terrible news.

AAJ: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

AL: See above—I hope they can see past the contemporary image of Elvis as just a hillbilly who got lucky, or as a white guy who stole black music, and consider the actual artistry of his music. I hope they can understand that when he cut 'That's All Right Mama" at Sun Records, it wasn't just a fluke, but was the result of active study and pursuit of different music and styles in a very radical way.

AAJ: What the future holds for you when it comes to work?

AL: Trying to find the next big project—in conversations about a few potential books and documentaries, but we'll see what actually shakes out. Meantime, still doing three hours every weekday on SiriusXM satellite radio, and journalism when it's there to do.
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