Can’t help falling in love Elvis impersonators give thumbs up to Austin Butler’s hip-shaking performance as he goes for the Oscar
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When Corny Rempel sits down behind the microphone to talk to listeners of Steinbach’s Mix 96.7 FM, he is but a simple radio DJ. He has what in his assessment is a standard 52-year-old haircut, and possesses an undeniable charm.
“In Steinbach, I’m Corny Rempel,” he says. “On stage, I’m Corny Rempel as Elvis Presley.”
Some of his listeners know the voice accompanying their morning commute belongs to a species known by scientists as Elvis mimicus, by most people as Elvis impersonators, and by members of the species themselves as Elvis tribute artists, or ETAs for short.
Although the King died nearly 50 years ago, his likeness is going through a lucrative renaissance. Netflix is cooking up an animated series about Presley’s life, and a Baz Luhrmann-directed biography of the gospel rock star has reintroduced Presley to a new generation of fans to the tune of US$151 million at American box offices.
The movie, Elvis, is vying for multiple Academy Awards Sunday night, including best picture and best actor, for Austin Butler’s portrayal of the King.
Rempel, for his part, didn’t need an introduction. “My oldest sister was obsessed with Elvis, and I remember so vividly the day he died,” Rempel says.
He was living in Niverville, sitting on the stairs, when she ran past him crying. His sister locked herself in her room for the rest of the day.
“I was seven years old, and I remember saying to my mother that Elvis doesn’t die. He was this non-human being,” Rempel says. “Elvis couldn’t be dead.”
Sylvio Fontaine, an ETA living in Whitewood, Sask., a town with a population under 1,000, didn’t know who Elvis was on the August day in 1977 when Presley took his last breath. Fontaine’s mother put on a record simply titled Elvis. That was enough to make Fontaine a fan for life. “When I heard him, I said, ‘Holy,” says Fontaine, an agricultural importer and exporter.
Roblin’s Eric Gustafson, who performs Elvis tributes under the name Daylin James, was the 1997 national grand champion. As a boy in Thunder Bay, he would do impressions of Presley’s voice in his bedroom, but eventually, tried his hand at Robert Plant and Jon Bon Jovi. He gave up doing Elvis, but his mother, who died when he was 18, told him he sang best when he was emulating the baritone of the most famous export of Tupelo, Miss.
Before he became a full-time performer, Gustafson was an ad salesman for the Chronicle Journal, Thunder Bay’s daily newspaper. After performing at a house party in 1996, earning $200 for a half-hour set, he went all out with a public show, hiring a limo to chauffeur him. The next day at work, he was stopped by the writer of the music column.
‘He said, ‘You know, you’re really good,’” Gustafson recalls. “Others said, ‘Holy s—-. He hates everybody, so you must be pretty good.’”
While Fontaine and Rempel have other day jobs, Gustafson parlayed his talent into a career, winning the 1997 tournament — judged by Elvis’ backup singers, his drummer DJ Fontana, and Presley’s third cousin. After that, he went to Japan to perform for four months, and in 1998, began performing in Las Vegas.
With decades of ETA work under their bejewelled belts, Rempel, Fontaine and Gustafson were coloured intrigued by the latest Presley biopic. “My first thought was, ‘Wow. Another movie?’” recalls Fontaine, whose act covers Presley’s 1969 concerts through his final shows in 1977. He was a fan of the 1979 biopic starring Kurt Russell, who had appeared as a boy in a Presley film called It Happened at the World’s Fair.
“The first thing I was thinking was, ‘No thank you. We don’t need another biography,’” says Gustafson.
Rempel was admittedly excited, and saw the movie several times. Fontaine and Gustafson both caved and saw it too.
Who better to assess the film’s central performance by Butler than three men who have made a life of paying tribute to the same character?
“I didn’t even know who Austin Butler was,” says Fontaine. “I took a look at him and said, ‘He don’t really look nothing like Elvis.’ But the movie wasn’t about that. It was about how Elvis came to be.”
Fontaine thought Butler’s performance was “pretty much bang on.” Butler prepared for two or three years, Fontaine says, and the work showed: in some shots, Luhrmann splices in the real Presley and breaking barriers of verisimilitude. There were times where Fontaine was convinced Butler and Presley were one and the same.
Gustafson, not an easy audience for Elvis hackjobs, was impressed when he saw the film at the now-closed Towne Cinema 8 in Winnipeg last summer. “I personally found his speaking voice very good. Better than most,” he says. “The fact that he had to carry Elvis through his whole life was very challenging, so I’m not going to take anything away from him.
“The movie itself was much better than I thought it would be,” he added. Not everything in the movie is true, Gustafson said, but that’s expected. “But I’m not a true-to-form Elvis historian.”
“I thought he was very good,” says Jon Baunsit, an ETA who lives in Transcona and refers to himself as the Filipino Elvis.
Rempel is effusive, too. “I thought Austin did an incredible job,” he says. “I perform in a world where everyone is trying to be as close as possible to Elvis, (I respect it),” he says.
The best evidence of Butler’s skill, Rempel says, is that when the late Lisa Marie Presley saw the film, she apparently didn’t even notice it was Butler, not her father, singing the songs in the 1950s portion of the biopic.
“I could list 10 ETAs right now that look and sing more like Elvis than Austin Butler can, but (this film) needed someone who was an actor, who could portray who he was on and off stage,” says Rempel. “Not everyone can do that.”
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Sunday, March 12, 2023 10:44 AM CDT: Adds Sylvio Fontaine photo