Our Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer exhibition has been swinging since Elvis' 75th birthday back in 2010. Enthusiasm for this exhibition, comprised of 56 black-and-white images taken by the acclaimed photographer Alfred Wertheimer, has never wanned. In fact, the buzz about Elvis has become something of a frenzy at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
A few weeks after throwing an incredible Elvis birthday gig attended by nearly 2,000 people, the museum hosted a screening of "Elvis '56," a 1987 documentary film narrated by Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born drummer-singer for "The Band." It was the first time I had seen the movie in full, but within the first four minutes, I was struck by two things: One was that Helm was the perfect interpreter of Elvis' story. With iconic hits like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "The Weight," he clearly understood the soul of Southern music and the culture that gave birth to it.
The other thing was that the viewers weren't just watching the clips, they were responding to the film. When Elvis sang, they came to life. He danced, and they were exuberant. Elvis was their hero. They cheered when the narrator recited John Lennon's words "Before Elvis, there was nothing." And when the girls in the original 1956 footage screamed, there were collective murmurs of understanding as if the crowd too remembered getting all worked up. When Elvis swung his hips aggressively, provocatively, in one performance, they felt the power of that pelvis, even now. In this YouTube-age of anything goes, that was as surprise.
With every seat in the auditorium occupied by a fan, it almost felt like we were back at the Mosque Theater (Richmond, VA) on June 30, 1956. Here, the most memorable images in the exhibition were shot; here, the girls hung on window ledges trying to catch Elvis' eye during rehearsal, and here, Elvis stole away for a steamy, toungue-touching kiss in a back stairwell.
Some 56 years later, Alfred Wertheimer recalled that the fans screamed, "We want Elvis! We want Elvis!" I could hear echoes of those words again in the auditorium. It was truly the closest many of us would get to seeing Elvis live!
Special thanks to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for their fantastic programming in conjunction with "Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer." For more on the exhibition and discussions with other fans, visit the show on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.