Judge Dan Mancini is gonna dye his hair black. Jet black. He'll look like Tony Curtis, man.
Before there was Snake Plissken, before there was R.J. McCready, before there was Jack Burton, there was…Elvis.
As befits his status as The King of Rock n' Roll, Elvis Presley has been lavished with multiple biographical films, but only one came from the two men who would go on to escape from New York and L.A., fight shape-shifting aliens in the Antarctic tundra, and squelch big trouble in Little China. John Carpenter's 1979 telefilm, Elvis, starring Kurt Russell as Presley, is hands down the most well made and entertaining of the various movies about the life of E. It's a late arrival to the DVD party, but it's finally here.
Facts of the Case
Elvis follows the life of Elvis Presley (Kurt Russell, Stargate) as he rises from dirt poor Tennessee kid to the King of Rock n' Roll. Along the way, he loves his mama (Shelley Winters, The Poseidon Adventure), woos Priscilla Beaulieu (Season Hubley, Hardcore), falls under the tutelage of Colonel Tom Parker (Pat Hingle, Batman), hangs out with Red and Sonny West, dyes his hair jet black, gives away a fleet of brand new Cadillacs, nurtures a fondness for white jump suits, has imaginary conversations with his dead twin Jesse Garon, shoots a TV or two, and just generally takes care of business.
Made shortly after Presley's death, Elvis is pure hagiography. It begins with the singer's boyhood, covers his rise to superstardom and marriage to Priscilla, and ends triumphantly in 1969 on the night that Elvis first slips into a white jump suit and debuts in Las Vegas—years before his decline into a bloated, sweaty, drug-addled mess. It contents itself with skimming along as a meditation on Presley's talent and success, barely broaching the darker aspects of his character. We do see the eventual dissolution of his marriage to Priscilla, but it's presented mostly as a result of Presley's unquenchable drive to make music and entertain crowds. The flick steers clear of 'Cilla's affair with karate instructor Mike Stone, Elvis' white-hot rage over her infidelity, and her allegations that Elvis once raped her. Like most biopics, it condenses and simplifies events for the sake of drama and narrative clarity, but still manages to get to the major truths of Elvis' life right. Despite its omissions and white-washing Elvis is a hell of a lot of fun, and a top-notch effort for a television production.
The two-part television movie was made by Carpenter after Halloween was in the can but before it was released and became an enormous financial success. At this point in his career, he was considered a journeyman director, a guy whose experience was limited to low-budget schlock. Regardless of his reputation at the time, his considerable talent is on full display in Elvis. In terms of television productions from the '70s, it is an incredibly good-looking and intelligently shot piece of work. From the opening shots of Elvis and the Memphis Mafia walking down a hallway in a gaudy Vegas casino to a tight shot of Presley talking on the phone to a young Lisa Marie before making his debut on that same casino's main stage at movie's end, Carpenter's framing is tight, controlled, and artful. Anthony Lawrence's (Roustabout) screenplay makes a big deal of Elvis' stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon, who is treated as a constant presence throughout Presley's life. Carpenter reinforces this theme visually by repeatedly shooting Russell juxtaposed against his own starkly defined shadow—even in scenes in which Jesse Garon's presence plays no part. The effect is to emphasize this idea that Elvis, in the absence of his twin, saw himself as somehow divided and incomplete. The entire conceit may or may not be Hollywood hokum that has nothing to do with Presley's actual life, but it gives the movie a visual coherence that is rare in theatrical features let alone made-for-TV movies.
All of Carpenter's visual artistry would be for naught without a strong actor in the role of Elvis. No worries: Kurt Russell's performance is fantastic. He's easily the best of the various actors who have played the King over the years. He nails Elvis' distinct vocal rhythms and cadences, yet manages to deliver dialogue as though he's just speaking casually. There's no sense of the self-consciousness that characterizes hammy impressions. He pulls off walking and dancing like Elvis, wears a tall pompadour with style, and curls his upper lip like it's an ingrained mannerism. Even the way he fidgets with his pinky ring is pure Presley. Russell's entire performance is easy and natural. The only thing he doesn't do is sing. Vocals are provided by country music singer Ronnie McDowell, who did such a bang-up job of impersonating the King's singing voice in Carpenter's flick that he became the go-to guy for nearly all Elvis biopics made thereafter, contributing vocal performances to Elvis and Me and the short-lived Elvis television series.
The rest of the cast do well in their support of Russell. Season Hubley only looks superficially like Priscilla, but her chemistry with Russell (the two married the same year Elvis was released) gives the relationship the appropriate levels of tenderness and intensity. Though given little screen time, fine character actor Pat Hingle plays Colonel Tom Parker with a confident bluster that avoids the overt sleaziness of other actors' takes on the man. Shelley Winters is believably vulnerable as Gladys Presley, while Vernon is played by Russell's father Bing. Ultimately, though, every other actor in the cast is riding on Kurt Russell's shoulders. He's in nearly every scene in the movie. It's up to him to carry the entire show, and he does so with confidence and style. The DVD case boldly declares that "Kurt Russell is Elvis in a career-defining performance." I'd say that's overstatement to the extent that Elvis probably isn't the first thing that pops into most people's minds when they think about Kurt Russell movies, but his performance as the King undoubtedly established that he had the screen presence and acting chops to be a leading man. Prior to making Elvis, Russell was mostly remembered for making a string of Disney pictures when he was a kid and adolescent. Elvis helped him to make the transition into adult roles. It also initiated the professional relationship between Russell and Carpenter that would lead to their collaborations on Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Fans of Carpenter and Russell owe Elvis a debt of gratitude.
Carpenter's work looks solid on this DVD from Shout! Factory. The image is mostly clean, colors are accurate if slightly muted, and detail is decent. The image is cropped to 1.78:1 from its original full frame broadcast ratio, but the framing remains artful and attractive (the movie was exhibited theatrically throughout Europe; the DVD's aspect ratio no doubt better matches the presentation at those exhibitions). A single shot of a worker hanging a gold record on the wall of the main staircase in Graceland was about the only shot I noticed that looked at all cramped. Otherwise, shots are beautifully framed and composed. Elvis has a visual elegance that belies and elevates its workmanlike script.
In addition to the feature, Shout! Factory's DVD includes a warm and informative audio commentary by Ronnie McDowell and Edie Hand, cousin of Elvis and author of Precious Family Memories of Elvis and The Presley Family & Friends Cookbook; a vintage making-of featurette called "Bringing a Legend to Life"; clips from a 1964 edition of American Bandstand devoted to Elvis' music; and a gallery of production photos. An eight-page insert booklet contains an essay about the film by horror film expert and John Carpenter fan Michael Felsher. The extras are fairly limp (with the exception of the commentary), but that's not at all bothersome considering the feature itself is a whopping 170 minutes.
John Carpenter's smart direction and Kurt Russell's fine performance make Elvis one of the most enjoyable Presley biopics ever made (it's definitely my favorite), despite a by-the-numbers screenplay. Fans of Presley, Carpenter, and Russell shouldn't hesitate to add this one their libraries.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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