"Oh, he's a very sincere guy," said Max Wallace, whose documentary about the real Elvis Presley's Jewish identity stars Hartal. "He's a good guy," adds Wallace. "I just think this whole Schmelvis thing has gone to his head."
Hartal's seriousness comes in part from the fact that he doesn't consider himself pure entertainment. "I perform at Jewish old folks' homes," he says, stroking his beard. Hartal and I are sitting in a coffeehouse on Boulevard St. Laurent in Montreal the day before the film's Canadian premiere. "I try to bring a little light into a dark place, and for me that's a religious act. Music is a miraculous vehicle that awakens people spiritually. Would you like to hear a sample?"
By all means, I say. Hartal picks up my tape recorder, cradles it in both hands, and in a raw, velvety croon belts out, "We-e-e-ell, since my bubbe left me, I've found a new place to dwell."
The film, due out in the States later this year, hasn't lessened Hartal's sense that he's different from other Elvis acts. "Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots" tracks Hartal's pilgrimages to Graceland and the Holy Land--at least that's the gag. In truth the idea for the movie began when Wallace, who wrote and directed "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" read a 1998 Wall St. Journal article reporting that Elvis's maternal great-great-grandmother was a Jew. Because Jewish identity is passed through the mother's line, this meant that, at least according to Jewish law, the King was kosher.
The cast was almost complete. "Every film needs a star," Wallace said, "and since Elvis is gone, I figured Schmelvis would be perfect." Hartal, who'd never visited Memphis, leapt at the opportunity to see where his hero had lived, loved, and died.
Wallace also had a subversive reason for inviting Schmelvis. "Elvis Presley is the most Christian of all pop culture icons," he said, "and I wondered how his devout Southern fans, like the ones who gather for the candlelight vigil at Graceland during Elvis Week every year, would react to the news that their God-fearing, gospel-singing idol was actually a Jew. I figured they'd take one look at Schmelvis and freak out." The plan, Wallace says, was to film the cast and crew getting chased out of Memphis by "anti-Semitic, pitchfork-wielding rednecks."
Nothing of the sort happened. For one thing, Elvis fans ate Schmelvis up. "Everybody loved him," said Wallace. "The constant attention he received interfered with our filming. We kept having to pull him away from disappointed fans who wanted their pictures taken with him." Shaking his head, Wallace says, "Memphis is the place where irony goes to die."
Hartal isn't surprised by Elvis fans' response. Strictly, he is not an Elvis impersonator. "I'm actually an Elvis tribute artist," he says. "Which means that I'm on a slightly higher level than an impersonator, because I also compose. I take Elvis's songs and throw in Yiddish lyrics. Basically, my formula is shtick plus Elvis equals Schmelvis.
"I've always had a spiritual link to Elvis," Hartal says. "I first heard Hound Dog when I was seven or eight, and it just hit me in the head like a rock. I loved everything about Elvis--the look, the moves, and especially the voice, the way it speaks to you directly. I knew I wanted to be just like the King. I had tickets to see him in concert, for my bar mitzvah, the day after he died. I was devastated."