El Rey de Rock ‘n’ Roll directed by Marjorie Chodorov (Soapbox)
With Elvis Presley serving as such a powerful cultural touchstone, it’s not surprising people have constantly reinterpreted his image to suit their own agendas. This is most readily seen in the realm of the Elvis impersonator (or “Elvis Tribute Artist,” in the more respectable phrase coined by Elvis Presley Enterprises, corporate keepers of all things Elvis). Some merely emulate the Elvis of their favorite period — Jailhouse Rock Elvis, Army Elvis, Las Vegas Elvis. But others use their impersonation as a means of blurring cultural identities, concocting such personalities as the Jewish Elvis (Schmelvis) or the lesbian Elvis (Herselvis).
And then there’s El Vez, who’s been giving a Chicano twist to his impersonations of the King since 1987 and is the subject of Marjorie Chodorov’s documentary, El Rey de Rock ‘n’ Roll. The short film (running just under an hour) has interviews with both El Vez in character and his offstage alter ego, Robert Lopez, as well as input from band members, family, friends and fans, plus plenty of live performance clips, all showcasing an act one university professor calls “part striptease, part Chicano studies course, part labor history and part history of popular culture.”
For those who only know the charismatic El Vez from his shows, Chodorov provides a brief history. A Los Angeles-area resident, Lopez was previously in the punk/new-wave band the Zeros and worked at a pizza place across from legendary punk club the Masque. A stint as a museum curator led to his inadvertent assumption of a new identity: an Elvis impersonator hired for an opening proved to be a letdown, prompting Lopez to say, “I could do better than that!” Soon he was performing at an impersonator contest during Memphis’ annual Tribute Week (when the faithful assemble to pay homage on the anniversary of the King’s death), and El Vez was born.
A Mexican Elvis actually makes sense, considering Presley’s own multicultural musical mix, which brought together black R&B and white C&W in an unprecedented fashion. Indeed, Lopez says that Presley’s visage in his mid-’60s films, which featured him stylishly clad in Continental suits and strutting around in exotic locales such as Acapulco, led him to think Presley was Latino: “Elvis looked like my uncle!” he says. And El Vez sings of Latino concerns: “In The Ghetto” becomes “In The Barrio”; “Bossa Nova Baby” is an anthem of praise for Cesar Chavez; “Suspicious Minds” transforms into the lament “Immigration Time”.
An El Vez show is a joyous experience, but Lopez’s underlying intention is to inform as much as entertain, and the film’s most interesting segments are when Lopez explains his motivations. His take on Army Elvis puts El Vez in fatigues, but he stresses it’s meant as a nod to Che Guevara as well (and Elvis-as-Che promptly covers John Lennon’s “Power To The People”). The backdrop for “Cesar Chavez” features the flag of the United Farm Workers (red with a white circle and an Aztec eagle in middle), which Lopez finds ironic because it resembles the banner of the Nazi regime — “oppressed people using a symbol of the worst oppressor.”
Safe sex finds a platform as well (“I’m gay, but El Vez is straight!” Lopez teases), setting a rare example in a genre that revels in sexual expression but often studiously avoids dealing with its consequences (the safe sex song is “Rubberneckin'”, naturally).
Lopez is an engaging personality, both in and out of El Vez drag, and El Rey de Rock ‘n’ Roll (currently making the rounds at film festivals) provides a clear illustration of his credo that what Elvis represents is available to all: “You don’t have to be a white man in your forties be part of the American dream.”