Book review: Ray Connolly’s Being Elvis: A Lonely Life is an excellent, though tragic, examination of the price of fame

On the surface, Elvis Presley seemed to have it all. Money, gold records, women, incredible fame. Yet underneath was a lonely man, addicted to prescription drugs and terrified that, at any moment, it might all be taken away from him. In Being Elvis: A Lonely Life, music journalist and screenwriter Ray Connolly steps into the role of biographer, following the life of a Tupelo dreamer, who achieved a level of fame and notoriety never seen before, and perhaps never seen since.

It’s a compelling picture that Connolly paints. Bolstering his portrait of the King with anecdotes from Presley’s lengthy career in the spotlight, he builds an image of a man isolated by his own naivete. Connolly traces the insecurities, that would eventually cripple Presley, back to a financially hard upbringing in Tupelo. It was a period that would both inspire Presley to do the best he could for his family, but also leave him unable to fully embrace the greatness that beckoned. Locking himself away in Graceland with his slimming pill addicted mother and a father that never forgot their poor beginnings, relying heavily on the almost Machiavellian Colonel Tom Parker, and bouncing from girl to girl, there’s a sense that Elvis always felt like things could end at any time – a fair assumption given the fickle nature of fame.

Perhaps because we all know how it ends, it’s those early years that make for the hardest reading. The decisions Elvis makes, particularly in allowing himself to be taken under the wing of Parker, and the fight to be taken seriously he faces as a rock and roll singer and a wannabe actor, all seem to be omens of what’s still to come for the young man. It was the beginning of a life that Connolly suggests he was ill-equipped to deal with; indeed, because the world’s response to him was unlike anything ever seen before, it was impossible for him to be prepared.

Connolly’s music journalist chops are well exercised here, not only by giving him a solid base in music history to work from, but also giving him access to some of the iconic artists that were inspired by Presley. Beginning with the recounting of a conversation with Bob Dylan, that went from awkward interview to a meeting of Elvis enthusiasts, it’s these nods to other great names that help the reader imagine the level of isolating fame that Presley achieved. It’s often hard to think of Elvis as anything other than the bloated, white jumpsuit wearing singer of the 1970s, old before his time, such is the image ingrained in our minds. But to think of a young Johnny Cash seeing him singing on the back of a truck in the 1950s, and being inspired to record his own songs, helps bring Presley back to the rising young star who could drive girls wild just with a twitch of his pinky finger.

Packed with pictures from throughout Elvis’ life and career – a great point of reference when tracing the rise, fall, and rise again of the King of Rock and Roll – Being Elvis: A Lonely Life is a excellent, though tragic, insight into a figure that we may think we recognise, but was in fact just an image projected and distorted by a fame that he could not control. Isolated and increasingly paranoid, Elvis’ final days, as presented by Connolly, seem to be a natural consequence of what came before, the sad outcome of a man who seemed to struggle to believe his own hype, took the critics to heart, and could never settle comfortably into the role of the most famous person on earth – after all, who could?

Being Elvis: A Lonely Life by Ray Connolly is published by Orion Books / Hachette Australia and is available now.