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The Race to Make an Elvis Movie Heats Up

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Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham

Amid the decades-old detritus of failed projects, four new movies about the King of Rock 'n' Roll hope to navigate the tricky waters of music rights and a complicated estate.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Forget leaving the building. When it comes to movies, the King of Rock 'n' Roll hasn't even arrived. For years, Hollywood players from American Idol creator Simon Fuller to billionaire producer Steve Bing have tried to make a biopic about Elvis Presley. The singer -- whose superstardom dovetailed with an abusive relationship with manager "Colonel" Tom Parker, a rocky romance with wife Priscilla Presley and battles with drugs that contributed to his 1977 death from a heart attack at age 42 -- would seem perfect fodder for the big screen.

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But a handful of key issues stand in the way, from the narrative challenges presented by Elvis' complicated and at times dark personal story to working with CKX Inc., the company that controls Presley's music, image and other intellectual property.

While films about Presley's contemporaries -- think 2004's Ray, about Ray Charles, or 2005's Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash, each made with the artist's blessing -- have been released to critical and commercial success, a biopic about perhaps the most iconic music figure of all time remains unmade.

That could be changing. Despite the challenges, four unauthorized Presley projects are in varying stages of development. Each tackles the topic differently: Bing's project, set up at Fox 2000 and based on the biography Last Train to Memphis, is expected to be a traditional biopic; The Identical has a faith-based bent and centers on an Elvis impersonator; Fame & Fortune is adapted from a memoir by a Presley bodyguard; and a project financed by producer Michael Benaroya (Margin Call), titled Elvis & Nixon, centers on an encounter between the singer and the president.

"You have a lot to overcome in terms of meeting or beating people's expectations," says Benaroya, whose project has cast Eric Bana as Presley and Danny Huston as Richard Nixon.

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Elvis & Nixon isn't the only Presley project to attach notables: In January, it was announced that Young Guns scribe John Fusco would adapt Last Train for Fox 2000, and in September, John Scheinfeld, writer-director of the 2006 doc The U.S. vs. John Lennon, signed on to direct Fame & Fortune for RLF Victor Productions. The moves suggest that Hollywood remains very much interested in Presley. In the right hands, the role would be coveted by A-list actors. But securing the King's music can be like checking into Heartbreak Hotel.

Some filmmakers hope to license Presley's music from Sony BMG, which owns the singer's recordings. But the famously tightfisted CKX, which acquired 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises from Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, for $100 million in 2005, must approve all uses. (EPE owns at least a share of most of the more than 700 compositions Presley recorded.) Given CKX's fierce protectiveness of the Elvis image and the cost of licensing music, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per track, others aren't even bothering to use Presley songs.

"CKX has not been asked for any licenses to Elvis Presley's music by any of these film projects, nor has it granted any," says a spokesman. The company declined further comment.