sat 13/07/2024

Mystery Dance: On filming Elvis Costello | reviews, news & interviews

Mystery Dance: On filming Elvis Costello

Mystery Dance: On filming Elvis Costello

Seeking the 'Rosebud' in the Elvis Costello story

Front title of BBC Four's Elvis Costello documentary

Making a film about an artist with the phenomenal range and creative effervescence of someone like Elvis Costello was never going to be easy. There have been over 30 albums since he started out in 1977, hundreds of songs, many of which are as brilliant as anything written in the last 50 years, and a series of collaborations with artists including Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Bill Frisell, Chet Baker, the Brodsky Quartet, Emmylou Harris, T-Bone Burnett and many others.

Portraits of great artists and musicians inevitably throw up a similar creative conundrum: I encountered it with Ravi Shankar, Alfred Brendel, Robert Wyatt, John Adams — to name but four.  As a director, you have to find a way to tell what can be a complex and wide-ranging story which has taken place over a period of decades. You have to distil the complexities of real life into a coherent dramatic arc. There are key moments, particularly significant relationships or decisive turning-points, all of which illuminate a person’s biography. And there are also abiding interests or passions, the things that reveal a kind of logic beneath the chaos of a life lived to the hilt.

His natural rebelliousness was channelled politically - rather than through family dynamics

For me, with Elvis, the relationship with his father proved to be the key to telling his story, and not just because of the uncanny physical likeness and body language, or Ross McManus’s evolution from bebop pioneer in the Liverpool of the 1940s to being a singer with Britain’s most popular dance band. It’s often said that, as we grow older, we subtly grow into the parents we tried so hard to distance ourselves from. Elvis’s dad was so cool that there was never any need for his son to rebel and, although he originally set out to be a songwriter, he was from the start drawn to the business of being an entertainer: not surprising, as he would regularly watch his dad rehearsing at the Hammersmith Palais and other venues. His natural rebelliousness was channelled politically - rather than through family dynamics - and expressed as a fierce antagonism towards all institutions and tyrannies, a horror of hypocrisy and a deeply felt anger about injustice.

Elvis talks, in the film, about how his father passed on stage clothes and shoes to him when he was a teenager, as if the young Declan were indeed stepping into his dad’s glamorous persona. He admits as well that jackets or suits have been, with very few exceptions, central to his look, as well as a kind of comfort. There has been a sense in which Declan has modelled himself on his dad, the man who was so adept at covering the whole range of pop and rock hits of the Sixties. Elvis would continue to relish the repertoire of classic hits, and still dips into it enthusiastically whenever he is on stage.

Elvis Costello, Joe Loss and RossMcManus

Ross McManus (pictured above with bandleader Joe Loss and his son Declan a.k.a. Elvis) passed away in the early months of our work on the film, and I was concerned that Elvis, at this moment of grief, might decide he wasn’t comfortable with being involved in a film that examined his life. To my relief, the opposite happened and he plunged into photo albums and scrapbooks, more than happy to share these with the camera. He was clearly very proud of his father – and had obviously always been so. But he was also aware that Ross had given up his true love – bebop  – because it didn’t earn him a living. With a child to support he needed to do something more lucrative. His talents as a vocalist and a mimic served him well as one of the featured vocalists of the Joe Loss Orchestra. And while Elvis clearly respects his father’s decision to take the commercial route rather than stick with jazz, this is a dilemma that has haunted his own life. If anything, there has been a refusal on Elvis’s part to slavishly follow the lure of the dollar. He has had hits, and he has at times gone for hit-making material, but he has also repeatedly turned his back on the formulaic and taken creative risks.

His dad, of course, is only one dimension of Elvis’s sense of belonging to a family that reaches back into his Irish ancestry. When I made films about music in Mali, I was struck by the importance of musical dynasties: you are born a griot and you must honour those who have come before you. In the feature-length version of the film this Saturday (BBC Four, 11.45pm), there is a sequence in which Elvis talks with obvious empathy about his paternal and maternal grandfathers, the former a trumpeter in the army who later played on the cruise ships and came back from New York laden with smart suits. The latter was a very young volunteer in the First World War: wounded and captured, and - as with so many of his contemporaries who were lucky to survive - profoundly traumatised by the things he had seen, but unable to talk about them.

There is a danger, of course, in reducing someone’s life to a simple story. With Elvis, I hope I have evoked the connection with his father in a way that viewers might be able to attach as much or as little importance to the clues that are scattered through the length of the film as they wish. The important thing, I feel, with a documentary of this kind is always to leave things open enough for each person who watches to take away the story that perhaps resonates with their own.

Overleaf: watch a clip from Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance

The relationship with his father proved to be the key, and not just because of the uncanny physical likeness and body language

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters