After Elvis Presley’s untimely passing in 1977, they started cranking out movies about the King left and right. In fact, movies and t.v. miniseries about Elvis became a genre like the Elvis movie itself: projects like Living Legend, Elvis And The Beauty Queen and Elvis And Me mixed fact and fiction to create a subgenre of rock movie that blurred the line between biography and Hollywood fantasy.
Elvis, a 1979 miniseries, was one of the first entries in this new subgenre. Critics commonly complain that it carelessly reshuffles the events of the King’s story, avoids the more painful elements of Presley’s character (the drug use, the infidelity, etc.) and reshapes the real story to fit the needs of the medium instead of reaching for the truth. If you look at Elvis as a straight biography, all are valid criticisms.
However, that’s really not the best way to look at Elvis. Instead, it should be viewed as the product of a more innocent time. A lot of the facts of Presley’s true life story weren’t known yet and the sorrow created by his passing was too fresh, too painful for a lot of fans to deal with an objective, no-punches-pulled biography. Thus, Elvis takes a “print the myth” approach to Presley’s life story and what they come up with works on its own terms.
Elvis was written and produced by Anthony Lawrence, a veteran t.v. and film screenwriter whose credits include a trio of Elvis movies. He takes the broad outline of Presley’s life and applies a classical, Hollywood biography style to it, using Elvis’s 1969 comeback to the concert stage in Vegas as its framing device. The familiar rise, fall and resurrection plot structure is applied as Elvis rises from humble beginnings to capture the zeitgeist as a rock star, loses his way during a stint in Hollywood and eventually triumphs over heartbreak and self-doubt to regain his mojo on the concert stage.
The version of the Presley story presented here doesn’t address his drug addiction, the contentious relationship with Colonel Tom Parker or the importance of the 1968 comeback t.v. special. However, that doesn’t mean Elvis is a total whitewash. Presley (Kurt Russell) is presented as a complex man, a misfit whose dreams of greatness sustain him even as they make it difficult for him to find satisfaction or maintain basic relationships with others. Though the film may fudge the facts, this approach captures the key truth of Presley’s life and it gives Elvis an enduring resonance.
Lawrence also makes the interesting choice of dividing the narrative into two halves, each focused on Presley’s relationship with a woman. In the first half, it is his relationship with his mother, Gladys. Each sustains the other with their devotion but Gladys falls apart when his career and lifestyle outgrow their relationship. In the second half, Elvis meets the teenage Priscilla (Season Hubley) and grooms her to be his lady love. As before, the demands of his career and lifestyle drive a wedge between the two – but in the second half, it is Priscilla who outgrows Elvis (a moment where she tells him as much is a stunner, perhaps the best purely dramatic scene in the film). This dual arc really gives shape to the narrative and suggest an understanding of Presley’s life that Elvis isn’t always given credit for.
Elvis is also lent gravitas by the strength of its acting. Russell gives a rich, impassioned performance as the title figure: he captures the vocal and physical tics flawlessly but more importantly captures the depth of yearning that drove Presley. Winters is haunting as Gladys, bringing a warmth and fragility to the role that makes her scenes with Russell genuinely moving. Hubley offers a nicely understated turn as Priscilla, offsetting Russell’s more dramatic approach with a quiet yet charismatic style. There also solid supporting turns from Robert Gray as faithful Elvis pal Red West and Carpenter film regular Charles Cyphers as Sun Records boss Sam Phillips.
Another key aspect is the music. Russell does not sing in the film but instead lip-synchs to recordings featuring the vocals of Ronnie McDowell, who is considered by some to be the best of the Elvis impersonators. His vocals are eerily convincing and the sympathetic, period-style recreations of the recording lend a period flavor to the soundtrack. It’s worth noting that veteran Elvis record producer Felton Jarvis supervised these re-recordings.
The last piece of the puzzle is John Carpenter’s direction. Given the general sci-fi/horror-oriented nature of his work, Elvis might seem like an anomaly at first. However, those who know their Carpenter know that the director is a big fan of classic Hollywood, especially the films of Howard Hawks. In a sense, Elvis is Carpenter’s “classic Hollywood” flick and he gives it a clean, crisp style. He avoids artifice to allow the performances and writing to do the talking but he manages some nice flourishes in the appropriate places: Your Humble Reviewer’s fave is a moment where the camera slowly moves in on Elvis as he revels in the sound made by a group of bluesmen in a Tupelo pawnshop. Also, the final concert scene is a killer that closes the film with a moving visual device.
In short, Elvis is more a Hollywood rise/fall/return story than a true biography but its love for and understanding of its subject make it something special, a moving fusion of fact and myth. If approached from this angle, it’s the Ultimate Elvis Movie.
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