Judge Bill Gibron liked this hunka hunka off-beat movie.
This is what the King means to me.
Eddie Presley is a down-on-his-luck security guard living in a van on the seedy side of Hollywood. Where once he was a fairly successful Elvis impersonator, he is now stuck in a dead-end existence that borders on abuse. He has very little money and even less self-esteem. He can't even buy a cup of coffee at the diner where his steady girlfriend, Tyranny, works tireless hours. His pals at the security agency can see Eddie is on edge, and when an "incident" costs him two weeks' salary, it looks like it's the end.
But then fate steps in and answers his prayers. Eddie has always dreamed of getting another chance at stardom. Doc, the owner of a decidedly dumpy club in a really sad section of town, is willing to give him a shot. As Eddie prepares to take the stage once again, all the old anxieties and insecurities come flooding back: his family rejection, his failed marriage, his nervous breakdown…yet he is determined to make this chance work for him. So he prepares meticulously, invites everyone he knows, and spends his days passing out flyers. On the night of the big performance, it will take something more than a pitiful turnout, a less-than-entertaining opening act, and a technical mishap to deter the reincarnated King. Left to his own devices, with only his talent and his vision, our hero must prove to the world—or at least the five people in the audience—that he deserves the name he has taken. He must make it. He must survive. He is Elvis. He is his idol. He is Eddie Presley.
It's so close to perfect, so near to overcoming its low-budget obstacles and turning into something truly classic, that when Eddie Presley fails to fulfill its promise, you want to jump into the movie and nudge it forward, giving it that final push into the realm of transcendence. Well written, extremely well acted, and crafted with an eye for both the artistic and the arcane, Eddie Presley is a titanic throwback to a more bittersweet time in independent film, an era where people fought to tell personal stories with one eye on clear-cut characterization, another on the cryptic, creative circumstances. Based on a play by star Duane Whitaker (Maynard, one of the two "hillbilly rapists" from Pulp Fiction) and featuring a who's who of cameos and crazed movie mainstays, it's one of those rare chances to watch a filmmaker and his creative crew struggle and strive to craft something completely original out of obvious archetypes and stock scenarios.
Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen, maybe even five cents for fifty, but Eddie Presley finds a way to enliven this tired premise with a mix of quirk, smarts and very sharp scripting. Within the span of 106 minutes (120 on the extended "director's" cut), we are witness to that substrata beneath the surface of the glitter and glamour of Tinseltown: the dreamers, the dregs, and the dropouts who face each day with the undeniable spirit of hope, specific faith that today will be the day they are discovered. Eddie Presley is probably the best film ever to deal with the struggle and the strife of those desperate wannabes on the outside who are confident they'll be let in, but not sure if they have the stamina to survive until they do.
Perhaps the reason this movie works so well—when it does—is because it creates a sense of hyper-reality, a world that seems completely believable as the dark, dismal streets of off-stardom Hollywood, but then adds the spice of squalor and sweat as a means of further undercutting the core. Whitaker, who seems miles away from both that pawn shop sex pervert or his role as Roadrash in Hobgoblins (how many actors can claim roles in a QT joint and an MST3K mainstay?) turns his Rock King-worshiping wuss into a complicated, brittle bastion of conviction and trepidation, a man who once knew the smile of stardom, but now only feels the sting of shame. Single-handedly carrying this complex film, Whitaker's Eddie Presley is a walking contradiction that demands our attention, even when he occasionally does things that seem superfluous or silly.
As Eddie's co-workers, Ted Raimi (Sam's sibling) and Willard Pugh (the mayor from Robocop 2) create a kind of rent-a-cop comedy team, so in sync they practically finish each other's sentences. Both Stacie Bourgeois (Tyranny) and Harri James (Becky) are excellent as the two women in Eddie's life, one whom he tries to dote over, the other he won't even give the time of day. And Roscoe Lee Browne finds the right tone of detached bemusement as the dive club owner Doc. Along with a four-letter-word sputtering, poontang-chasing faux talent agent in death mask makeup played by none other than Clu Gulager (how can you not love a horny, debauched Clu Gulager? it's not humanly possible) and a hard-ass security guard supervisor assayed expertly by the sovereign of mean men, Lawrence Tierney, there is a thespian delight around every corner. Add blink-and-you'll-miss-it bits by Quentin himself, Bruce "The Chin" Campbell, Tim Thomerson (playing the filthiest comic alive), and Marty Sheen's silly brother Joe Estevez, and Eddie Presley is B-movie nirvana, an independent Valhalla where great unclaimed ham actors go to work out.
Still, there is something hampering Eddie Presley, some mysterious issue that keeps the film from ultimately finding its wings of wonder and taking flight. It's still a wonderful movie, funny and funky, fresh and fascinating. You will probably not see something so unique and yet so completely recognizable in the realm of low-budget moviemaking. Director Jeff Burr (Leatherface, Stepfather 2, Puppetmaster 4 and 5) takes a break from the beasts and actually constructs a film that experiments with tone, narrative flow, characterization, and set design to suggest subtext and redefine events. While some may imply the desire to rely on one too many directorial tricks, Burr's hand is always sure (even in the extended cut). So with all these fantastic factors going for it, where does Eddie Presley stumble? Well, the easy answer would be in the scripting. Eddie never really gets a transcendent moment, a chance for the film to combine its incredible elements to lift you out of the story and into something more special. We keep waiting for it to come and it never quite does. The movie pushes it, though. It comes awful goddamn close, so close in fact that you could get confused and claim to experience the inspirational, when in reality it was all a ruse, a cinematic sham caused with jumpsuits and jokes. Indeed, what Eddie Presley may need is more proof of our hero's music and mimicry. When Eddie sings his signature song "That's What the King Means to Me," he almost has us. The lyrics are just dopey and dreamy enough. But then the music fades and so does its impact. Without the sonic reminder of why we've suffered through this poor man's pathetic life, Eddie Presley becomes a great set of ideas that never gel into symbiotic gold.
Tempe Video's Special Edition, two-disc DVD set of this special movie is a real milestone in the no-budget moviemakers' history of digital distribution. Offering two versions of the film, a complete full-length commentary by cast and crew, several featurettes and behind-the-scenes documentaries, interviews, deleted scenes (with optional commentary), and even snippets of the original stage play, this is an amazing contextual compendium. Everything you ever wanted to know about the making of this movie is offered here for the perusal. The difference between the two versions of the film, aside from about 20-plus minutes of missing footage, is really deep vs. deeper. The extended version gives us more of the ancillary characters (included Eddie's odd colleagues at the security guard company) and a few more of the awful auditions Doc has to sift through. Most of the material is found on the deleted scenes section of Disc Two. The outtakes do offer other moments, though—scenes that only survived the first three-hour rough cut of the feature. They are shown here in a rather depressing state of disrepair (filmed off an editing screen, they look like lost transmissions from a post-apocalyptic society), but it's nice to see them (and hear Burr and friends discuss them on the optional commentary) if only to further flesh out Eddie's story. The Q&A from 1991 is fascinating, since we get to hear from almost everyone except our star, Duane Whitaker. The reasons why he was not hounded to participate, and why he never spoke about the film, remain an anomaly.
Fans of Bruce Campbell and Quentin Tarantino (whose participation came partly out of the fact that he was shooting Reservoir Dogs at the same time, and both productions shared screening space for reviewing dailies) will want to check out the material from the madness montages, since a couple of cut lines are rehearsed and executed by these motion picture gods. Just what a pain in the ass Lawrence Tierney can be is seen in a featurette about his cameo, and the scenes from the original one-act play indicate just how much of the last 40 minutes of the movie made it intact to the large screen. Other interesting tidbits include a full-color insert offering introductions to the film by Tempe Titan J. R. Bookwalter and director Jeff Burr, a snippet from the Sundance Channel, and some comic cut-ups about the death of the King. But it's the full-length commentary that really lingers. Burr and his creative team dissect certain edits, wonder about how they managed to get away with as much as they did, and constantly promise to do it all again, since the original experience was so awe-inspiring. Not so much a "how-to" as an "and how," the narrative provided explains why so much of this movie works as spectacularly as it does.
Visually, Eddie Presley looks damn decent for a movie shot on 16mm with little or no budget. The transfer from Tempe is rich and robust, with nice color corrections and shadowy contrasts that really help the movie's mood. Though only available in 1.33:1 full screen, the print is an appropriate portrait of Eddie's life and living arrangements. Eddie Presley is also very evocative and ethereal (thanks in no small part to Jim Manzie's amazing guitar driven score, like Twin Peaks meets surf rock) in a Dolby Digital Mono mix. The dialogue is always understandable and a real feeling of the grit and grime of hard-times Hollywood is expressed.
Still, Eddie Presley is missing that one thing, that single ingredient that makes something magnificent into a complete masterpiece. Too bad it can never find it, but it's not all for naught. Eddie Presley is a true treasure, something that fans of off-the-beaten path motion pictures should seek out immediately. It shows how, sometimes, following your dreams is not enough. You have to really trust in them too. And Eddie Presley is such a believer.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Audio Commentary with Director Jeff Burr, Writer/Actor Duane Whitaker, Cinematographer Tom Callaway, Editor Jay Woelfel, Composer Jim Manzie, and Co-Producer Chuck Williams
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