Out on the lakefront, Chicago filmmaker Heather McAdams is playing tunes by the King on a junky little tape recorder. Trent Carlini–“Italy’s #1 Elvis Stylist” reads his tour jacket–is going through his time-worn Elvis moves in sync with the music as McAdams shoots. She’s worried the late afternoon sun isn’t sharp enough to make his rhinestones sparkle. He needs to know, “Do you want me to perform the song, or should I pose it?”
Carlini was born in Chicago but grew up in Italy. In 1985 his recording of “Polynesia” beat out Duran Duran for the number-one slot on the European charts for eight weeks. But he achieved even greater acclaim as an Elvis impersonator. “Elvis was the only thing that took me back to America over there. Whenever he came on the radio, it was like a chain all the way back,” he recalls. Now, he says, when kids who’ve seen his show see clips of the real Elvis on TV, they point out excitedly, “Look, mommy, it’s Trent on TV!”
Carlini, the star of one of McAdams’s two recently finished films on Elvis impersonators, is uncomfortable being compared to other denizens of the Elvis-impersonator cosmos. “A lot of people who don’t believe in themselves–goofballs and social rejects, frankly–just want attention, so they go out and get a suit made. They are really, really ruining the entertainment end of this thing,” he observes. In his shows Carlini really sings, with a real band. Other Elvises rely only on physical resemblance. “Hey, I’ll turn down parades, because I just don’t look that much like him,” he says.
There are a lot of amateurs out there, as McAdams discovered at an earlier shoot at Belmont Harbor. She was “creatively parked,” as she puts it, shooting Carlini doing “Money, Honey” when a Chicago police officer cruised up. The cop had an Elvis hairdo and sideburns, so McAdams invited him to appear in the “Jailhouse Rock” scene. Liking his current job, the cop declined. But instead of giving her a ticket, Officer Elvis stuck around to watch and provide security on the set.
McAdams’s two Elvis films premiere tonight at Chicago Filmmakers. The second one portrays Jay Elvis, another local impersonator. While both works are off at the lab getting printed, a frantic McAdams has agreed to sit still for an interview, but first she wants to serve up a yellowish orange “energy” beverage–clearly an impulse purchase by someone with an eye for color. “Looks like piss with a lot of vitamins, doesn’t it?” she says. “How’s it taste?”
After devoting months to scrutinizing this subcultural enterprise, the 37-year-old filmmaker concludes that “there are as many different kinds of Elvis impersonators as there are people.” But for her, “seeing a good Elvis show fulfills the same desire to see a man strip, without taking his clothes off.” Her last film, Meet . . . (Bradley Picklesimer), was a free-form documentary on the preeminent female impersonator of Lexington, Kentucky. Documenting Elvis impersonators–who also do a lot of primping and preening–is a seminatural extension of this pursuit. Except, says McAdams, that Elvis impersonation is “a pretty macho business.” And for some reason, “they all can do Andrew Dice Clay impersonations on the side.”
McAdams handled her Elvis subjects with a degree of trepidation because impersonators “are all very serious about it. You have to be careful with their careers,” she cautions. She built a casket for the Jay Elvis film; she thought it would be cool for him to open his act by stepping out of it on stage. The idea didn’t fly with Jay, but he did deliver a rendition of “Kung Fu Fighting” from the mock crypt for McAdams’s camera.
McAdams has occasionally been known to heap sarcasm on Elvis in her cartoons. She once drew him with two ponytails (mystified by this apparition, Trent Carlini implored, “But why two ponytails, Heather?”). When a silk-screener tried adding blue eye shadow to the T-shirt edition of the cartoon, McAdams strenuously objected. “That was taking it way too far,” she says.
A limited edition of two dozen “Elvis With Ponytails” T-shirts–a highly exclusive offering in light of how many other reproductions of Elvis walk the earth–will be for sale at “Hesterama,” McAdams’s film premiere at Chicago Filmmakers tonight. (They’re $15, cash only, please.) The evening will also include Elvis songs styled by Trent Carlini, plus Heather McAdams’s occasional band Cracking Love Bites (“it means an awesome hickey in Scottish,” but the name might change by show time).
McAdams’s next project, if she can get the NEA grant, will be a film on folk faiths in Kentucky whose believers speak in tongues and handle snakes. And if that funding falls through, she’ll probably improvise–take her camera to the zoo, buy rubber snakes from toy shops, and hand scratch interpretive markings on old nature footage. Or she might explore the world of people-who-talk-in-peculiar-voices-to-pets. “I have a friend who talks to her ferret in a very special way,” she explains, admitting to a similar tendency herself with Edwina, her cat, who pokes her head through plastic bags, wears them like capes, and runs around the apartment preying on vermin. “Can’t you just see the National Enquirer headline: ‘Government Wastes $25,000 on Pet-Talk Movie’?” she fantasizes. “Getting in the National Enquirer–actually, I can’t figure out if that’s my greatest fear, or my goal in life.”
“Hesterama” starts at 8 tonight at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont. For more info, call 281-8788. It’s $5.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.