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Review: Elvis at 21

Heather Wallace

Describing Elvis Presley as larger than life is surely one of the world’s greatest understatements. His magic continues long after his death and his image is one of the most recognised in the modern world.

Elvis in a white bejewelled jump suit is the image that prevails today, copied by thousands of adoring fans every year.  Although it’s iconic, it’s also poignant; it is Elvis no longer in control of his career, his health or his life. His state at the time of his death at 42, isolated from the world by personal addictions and hangers-on, made him more of a caricature of himself than any impersonator could ever be.

Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, showing at the National Portrait Gallery, sweeps that image away.

To mark what would have been Elvis’s 75th birthday in 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC launched a travelling exhibition showing him at the very beginning of his career.

This is Elvis on the brink not just of stardom but of a superstardom never seen before, and at a time when he could enter a city diner and flirt anonymously with a pretty waitress or walk through a train station without being mobbed.

In 1956 Elvis had just signed a recording deal with Sun Studios and had a reputation as a talented regional performer.  He and his backing band were invited to New York to rehearse, record and appear on family friendly TV shows.

Photographer Alfred Wertheimer, himself only 26, was asked to take promotional shots of the up and coming young singer. Choosing to fade into the background and observe, the photographer captured a sequence of candid shots of an unselfconscious performer who had no idea he was about to become a legend.  These are no posed or controlled portraits, they are simple black and white images taken as part of everyday life on the road, in concert, recording in studios and at home. In each and every one the pure physical beauty and talent of Elvis comes across with aching rawness.

Wertheimer later described his technique, “The only thing I wanted Elvis to do was to be himself. Everyone else had something they wanted him to do.” These are the ultimate behind the scenes images, Elvis slipping his arm around a girl’s waist, relaxing shirtless in jeans listening to the studio cut of his recording, sleeping on a train. The final image is appropriately called Star Burst, and it is a shot taken behind Elvis performing in Memphis to a crowd of thousands, with a fan’s camera flash lighting the night.

My favourite is a series of photos of Elvis at the end of a long train trip, getting off at the outskirts of Memphis to walk to his parent’s home in the suburbs alone. For most of the shots he is a small figure glimpsed in the distance, as he turns and waves his thanks to the station guard, stops to talk to a woman on the street and then makes his way home. The success of the tour Wertheimer documented meant that was the last moment Elvis would have the chance to slip away by himself.

Even if you’re not a diehard Elvis fan this exhibition is worth seeing for its sense of history in the making and for what it shows about a world that was about to change. Every generation thinks they’re the ones that invented music and sex, but here is someone that at only 21 unleashed both on an unsuspecting public.

What is your favourite Elvis song or movie? 

the essentials

What: Elvis at 21
Where: National Portrait Gallery
When: Until 10 March 2014

Supporting events

Elvis at 21 highlights tour

Daily at 2:30pm

Screening: Love me Tender [PG] (1956)

Daily at 11.00am and 3.00pm

Portraits on Sunday: Elvis and Alfred

Sunday 19 January, 2.00 – 3.00pm

Building Elvis

Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 January
11.00am, 12.00pm, 1.00pm

Wednesday Gallery Talk: Elvis of Memphis

Wednesday 29 January, 12.30 – 1.00pm

Elvis and the 50s trivia night

Friday 7 February, 5.30 – 8.00pm

Wednesday Gallery Talk: From the rise of the teenager to the Day of the Dead

Wednesday 19 February, 12.30 – 1.00pm


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author