Movies and music: Watching ‘Elvis’ film, visiting Graceland brought mom back to me

by Cathy Cassata

At my mom’s wake in 2007, my siblings and I decided to play Elvis Presley’s music quietly in the background. We wanted her friends and family to have an excuse to smile in between all the tears. She was a big Elvis fan and shared that with her children.

As kids, we listened to Elvis’ music, watched his movies and shows about his life, and heard tidbits about him from my mom. My favorite story was the one she told about her finally getting to see Elvis perform at Chicago Stadium in May 1977 while she was pregnant with me. She and her childhood friend Josie were high up in the rafters but still screamed, “We love you, Elvis!” He died three months later.

Since my mom’s passing, I smile when I hear Elvis references, but I don’t seek out his music or movies. I let the memory of him rest with the memory of her. After all, I was just a bystander to her fandom, for the most part.

That changed this year, though. In January, my son Ben told me I had to watch the new “Elvis” movie from filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. Ben’s a movie buff and likes actor Austin Butler, but it surprised me that a 15-year-old would be interested in Elvis. I was pregnant with Ben when my mom died, so he never met her, but he did know she was an Elvis fan and that I might connect with the movie.

A few days after Ben made this suggestion, my childhood friend Ally sent me a text: “I thought of your mom last night because I watched the ‘Elvis’ movie. Did you see it?” Ally remembers me singing “All Shook Up” when we were kids. The lyrics “I’m in love. I’m all shook up. Mm-mm, mm-mm, yeah-yeah-yeah” were my favorite to blurt out randomly. My black-haired, blue-eyed dad used to serenade my mom with those words, and in those moments, he seemed to be her Elvis. I think their exchange stayed with me subconsciously.

With two people recommending the movie in one week, I had to stream it. Sure enough, I loved it. Not only did it remind me of my mom, but it also brought to light why Elvis was so adored and admired for his talent, charisma, charm and looks. The film inspired me to take a deep dive into his life. I watched the 2018 HBO documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” and listened to the audiobook for Priscilla Presley’s 1986 book “Elvis and Me.” To feed my Elvis fix further, I text Ally, “Let’s go to Graceland!”

On Jan. 29, I flew from O’Hare International Airport to Memphis, Tennessee, where Ally picked me up after driving there from her Arkansas home. We had the perfect trip planned: two nights at the Guest House at Graceland to see all things Elvis and two nights in downtown Memphis to venture down Beale Street. On our way to the Guest House, we stopped at The Beauty Shop restaurant, a 1950s-style beauty shop that was formerly Priscilla’s curl-and-dye spot. It was the perfect way to kick off the getaway.

Once we got to the Guest House, we heard about an approaching ice storm in Memphis. Luckily, we were able to tour Elvis’ home and the resting place for him and daughter Lisa Marie, as well as the museum, which included an exhibit for the new “Elvis” movie. However, the storm forced us to cancel our stay in downtown Memphis, and we had to extend accommodations at the Guest House for two nights. As disappointed as we were to miss out on B.B. King’s Blues Club, Sun Studio and the National Civil Rights Museum, the circumstances allowed for a double dose of Elvis.

We spent more time cruising through the museum exhibits and taking in all the memorabilia and fun facts. Plus, each night at 7, we took a seat in the Guest House’s full-size movie theater, which played Elvis movies and concerts. We watched parts of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and his 1968 comeback TV special, as well as the 1970 documentary “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.”

As I took it all in, transcending to times before I was born, I could feel my mother’s presence. I could see her watching the movies and feeling the joy they brought her. I could hear her singing along to his music. I could envision us in that theater together screaming, “We love you, Elvis!”

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people.