DVD Review: Kurt Russell Is the King in John Carpenter’s “Elvis”

Written by TV on DVD

The 1979 biopic, Elvis, has finally found a home on DVD thanks to Shout! Factory. This made-for-TV movie was a huge success when it originally aired. There’s no question why: The movie came our just a year and a half after his unexpected death. Although this movie could have been a glorified puff piece about Elvis and all of his achievements, it turned out to be a solid production with a lot of creative talent involved, and of course some great music.

Looking at Elvis some 30 years after its release, besides the film stock looking a little grainy, the story and plot structure don’t feel dated. In fact, in Elvis you see many of the same story devices and themes that have become cliché in practically every musical biography since Elvis, from Coal Miner’s Daughter to La Bamba to What’s Love Got to Do With It to Ray. These same clichés were sent up hilariously in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. I’m talking about the tragic or poverty stricken childhood, the drive and desire to be an artist, the rise to fame, the fall from grace, and of course the big comeback.

The film was directed by John Carpenter, yes that John Carpenter, the same guy who scared the shit out of us in Halloween, The Fog and the Thing and whose career has primarily been in genre movies. Yet in 1978, he impressed the producers of this movie so much, that they took a chance with the then up and coming director. Carpenter’s star was Kurt Russell, then a young actor trying to establish his career after having made some Disney films as a kid.

Russell becomes Presley in this movie. I know you read that comment a lot, that an actor gets so deep into the character that they are no longer an actor but they are the character. This is especially difficult when an actor is being asked to portray a legendary person. How daunting a task it must have been to have to play one of the most beloved people in pop culture history. Yet, after the first ten minutes of watching Russell walk with a strut, play with his hair, and curl his upper lip into the famous snarl/smile, you forget about Kurt Russell and you are only watching Elvis. It’s not just his mannerisms, but Russell inhabits Presley’s pain, desire and rage superbly. Russell was nominated for an Emmy for this role, as well he should have.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in this movie and the filmmakers decided to skip the 70’s and Presley’s death and focus on his humble upbringing up through to his Vegas comeback in 1969. That’s where the film opens, in ‘69 Vegas, just before Elvis is supposed to take the stage. While his father, Vernon (played by Russell’s real life father, Bing) tries to negotiate with a would-be assassin, Elvis sits in a hotel room watching the TV news. With him is his longtime friend and confidant, Red West (Robert Gray). The two men listen to a news anchor question if Elvis is a has-been. Angered and frustrated, Elvis shoots out the television and we begin a flashback of his life.

The boyhood scenes of Elvis’s life are simple and poignant. Elvis frequently talks to the ghost of his dead twin brother (who died at childbirth) and gets mocked for it. Comforting him is his mother, Gladys, played with peculiar charm by Shelly Winters. In all of her later roles, Winters always seemed a little loopy to me. In this film, her strangeness lends itself to the role.

When the film jumps to the high school years, Russell takes over. These early sequences are fun and have a lightness to them that recall some of the films from that time period. As cash rolls in, the only thing that hurts Elvis is when his high school sweetheart decides to move on because he hasn’t been around. But darkness is just around the corner once Colonel Tom Parker comes on the scene.

As played by Pat Hingle, there’s no doubt that the Colonel doesn’t always have the King’s best interest in mind. Whether this was actually the case in real life, I’m not sure, but the way Hingle acts and the way he is shot from low angles, you always get the sense that this guy is a snake.  However, the Colonel makes Elvis a millionaire and even makes sure that Elvis’s career doesn’t stall when he’s drafted into the Army. The biggest tragedy in Elvis’s life occurs when Gladys dies. Elvis is devastated by the loss of the most important woman in his life and struggles to carry on.

As the entire film is episodic (which would be easier with commercial breaks, but seem more glaring when string together as one long film), we see Elvis stationed in Germany and meeting his future wife, Priscilla (then a 14 year old girl). Pretty soon, he’s out of the Army, back in Graceland and begging Priscilla’s father to let her come live in his house so that he can take care of her and eventually marry her. Man, the 60’s were a crazy time, because sure enough, the father consents to his daughter going to live with the rock and roll star.

The relationship between Elvis and Priscilla takes up that last third of the film, with Presley becoming more paranoid about his career (music sales are down and his cheesy movies aren’t as popular) and Priscilla getting pissed because he’s never around to be with her and their infant daughter, Lisa Marie. The tension in the Presley house is well played, with some nicely framed scenes that really build up Priscilla’s feeling of isolation and her inability to have her own life.  Season Hubley portrayed Priscilla; she matures before our eyes from the sweet little 14 year old to the bitter, heartbroken wife and mother who shows up at the end of the movie. Russell and Hubley both created some heat in the film, heat so real that the two actors married soon after the movie ended.

At nearly 170 minutes, there’s a lot of material in this film, including many full musical sequences featuring the singing voice of Ronnie McDowell, who performed all of the Elvis singing vocals in the movie. With so many details covered, I was surprised that there were two aspects of Presley’s life not really featured in the movie. The first is Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special that essentially reestablished Presley’s relevance in the world of rock and roll. The special is barely mentioned. This could be because the special aired on NBC and this movie was an ABC production. That seems kind of petty me, but it was a different era; there were only three major networks and they were cutthroat and possessive.

The other aspect missing is any mention that Elvis growing dependency on prescription drugs. Not that we needed to see him becoming a junkie like we saw Ray Charles do in Ray or Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, but in omitting this dark part of Presley’s life, it makes him come off more as a tragic figure, as if the world was against him and that his downfall had nothing to do with his own actions. However, I doubt the Presley family would have allowed the film to be made if he came off it too bad of a light.

When you watch the movie, you’ll be surprised at how nicely Carpenter composed the film. Working with a tighter TV budget and a limited amount of time, Carpenter, who was an independent filmmaker at the time, was a good choice because he was able to work fast and still make Elvis look more interesting than your average movie of the week. The camera is constantly moving, keeping you involved. Long single takes are not stuck on the tripod. The camera graciously dollies around actors or gradually zooms in during pivotal scenes, giving this movie a contemporary look and feel. I was never bored while watching Elvis, unlike so many TV movies or TV series from the 70’s and 80’s that wind up on DVD.

The DVD contains a brief making of documentary that was shot during the film’s production. It’s fascinating to see Russell before he was a star and a young John Carpenter talk on camera about the making of the movie. It should be noted that this was the first time Carpenter and Russell worked together. Soon thereafter they went on to make the classic films Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. The DVD also has commentary by Ronnie McDowell and author Edie Hand, rare clips from American Bandstand (the film was produced by Dick Clark, by the way) and a photo gallery.

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