Judge Ben Saylor was shocked to find neither peanut butter nor bananas in any of the 173 minutes of Elvis: The Mini-Series.
The legend you know. The story you don't.
Elvis: The Mini-Series, originally broadcast over two nights on CBS, was preceded by a wave of hype, as it was the first Elvis bio project to use official Elvis Presley recordings, and was also one of the only such projects sanctioned by the Presley Estate. Nominated for numerous Emmy and Golden Globe awards (with star Jonathan Rhys Meyers winning the latter for Best Actor), the mini-series is a mixed bag, featuring some strong performances and impressive production values that are often hamstrung by an uneven, cliché-ridden script.
Facts of the Case
Memphis high-schooler Elvis Presley (Meyers) dreams of being a successful singer and movie star. His mother, Gladys (Camryn Manheim, The Practice), dotes on her boy and only wants the best for him, but father Vernon (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2) scoffs at his son's lofty intentions.
Young Elvis's persistence pays off, however, after some goofing around with musicians in Sam Phillips's (Tim Guinee) Sun Studio leads to the recording of the hit record "That's All Right (Mama)"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky." Elvis quickly becomes a regional sensation, drawing the attention of the shrewd but shady Tom "Call me Colonel" Parker (Randy Quaid), who Elvis signs with despite his parents' misgivings about the impresario. His music career takes off, setting off a nationwide hysteria as teens scramble to buy his records and adults rush to condemn the singer and his "lewd" stage movements. Elvis begins making commercially successful but artistically bankrupt films that the Colonel persuades him to star in despite his client's desire for more serious roles.
Overall, things seem to be going well for Elvis until he is served an Army draft notice. Rather than get out of it, the Colonel persuades Elvis to do the service, assuring him that his career will be waiting for him when he gets out. Private Presley quickly gets accustomed to military life, but is struck a huge blow when his mother falls ill and passes away.
While stationed in Germany, he meets 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Antonia Bernath). He is instantly smitten, but courts her like a gentleman, meeting her parents and resisting the lustful teen's entreaties to premarital (and, more importantly, illegal) sex. Elvis manages to persuade Priscilla's parents to allow her to move close to him when his service is Germany is over. The pair's relationship is put to the test, however, by Elvis' increasing dependency on pills and his fling with Ann-Margret (Rose McGowan, Grindhouse) during the filming of Viva Las Vegas. Elvis and Priscilla eventually get married, but Elvis's pill-popping tendencies and floundering career take their toll. The singer also goes through a short-lived religious phase.
Low on both cash and popularity, Elvis reluctantly agrees to meet with a young director about doing a TV Christmas special. To his surprise, the director, Steve Binder (Jack Noseworthy, Event Horizon), has lots of good ideas on how to reinvent the King—and none of them involve singing Christmas carols. The resulting 1968 comeback special re-establishes Elvis and rejuvenates him artistically.
Elvis: The Mini-Series gets a lot of things right, beginning with casting Meyers as the King. The Irish-born star of Bend It Like Beckham and Match Point would certainly not have been my first choice to play Elvis, but, to my immense surprise, Meyers acquits himself admirably in the role. Physically, the actor bears more than a passing resemblance to Elvis (especially when shown in profile). While Meyers looks leaner than Elvis, overall he's a pretty good fit. His accent and mannerisms remain fairly sturdy throughout the mini-series' nearly three-hour runtime. Patrick Sheane Duncan's script gives the actor plenty of different moods to convey, especially in part two, when his drug habit really kicks in, and Meyers proves he can go from being a sexy charmer to a nasty, selfish jerk. The actor's lip-syncing, however, leaves something to be desired, particularly during the mini-series' closing number "If I Can Dream."
Manheim and Patrick are also great as Elvis's parents, even if their characters are annoyingly (Gladys) and awkwardly (Vernon) written. Manheim is perfect as the doting, worrying mother, and she and Meyers play their scenes together well. Her character isn't given a wide range of emotions, as she's constantly fretting over something happening to her son, but Manheim's performance carries the day. Patrick, who played another music star dad in Walk the Line, works well for the no-nonsense Vernon, but his relationship with Elvis is a little harder to suss out. Initially skeptical and scornful of his son's prospects, his attitude changes after Elvis' success, and, along with it, his role in the family. He seems to live with Elvis wherever he goes, and is responsible for paying the bills. Sometimes he seems to be trying to help control Elvis' wilder impulses (frivolous money-spending, pill-popping); other times he turns a blind eye or even enables this self-destructive behavior, mainly by siding with the Colonel on nearly everything. This role would probably have been tricky to pull off, but Patrick handles it like a pro. He is always believable as a former breadwinner (meager though that bread may have been) who now has to deal with the fact that his son has achieved more success than he ever would have been able to.
Elvis: The Mini-Series is all but stolen, however, by Quaid's performance as the Colonel. Utilizing some sort of strange, difficult-to-place accent (Parker hailed from the Netherlands), Quaid, more than anyone else in the cast, becomes his character. Without over-the-top line readings or excessive scene chewing, the actor dominates every scene he's in. Quaid makes the Colonel ingratiating when meeting Elvis and his parents, and slyly forceful when his client talks back. A master manipulator, rather than relying on his own rhetoric to win people over, he often uses his opponent's (particularly Elvis) words against them without the other person being aware of it. A particular telling scene is when Elvis asks the Colonel to manage Ann-Margret. Surprisingly, the Colonel agrees to Elvis's request, but gradually, by describing to Elvis how much effort taking her on would entail, leads his client to decide that managing her wouldn't be such a good idea. There is no argument between the two, but with subtle manipulation the Colonel manages to resolve the issue.
Bernath is a very good Priscilla, and manages to play ages 14 and 18 believably. McGowan is appropriately vampish as the foxy Ann-Margret. Guinee is a decent Sam Phillips, but Dallas Roberts really nailed the part in his handful of scenes in Walk the Line.
For a work for television, this mini-series boasts some strong production values. Everything looks authentic, especially the early scenes in 1950s Memphis. Production designer David Chapman has done a first-class job. Sets and costumes are all top notch. It all looks impressive on camera, too, thanks to cinematographer Jon Joffin. While I don't know if I would have mistaken this for a theatrical release, care was obviously taken in regards to the mini-series' look. Many scenes appear naturally lit, and there's good use of shadows as well. Director James Sadwith utilizes an unobtrusive handheld shooting method for many scenes, and makes the musical numbers look good without going overboard with MTV-style camerawork. Overall, this is a sharp-looking production, with a good, if not perfect, DVD presentation (There is some grain to the image).
The story is bookended with Elvis' 1968 comeback special (similar to how Walk the Line was structured around Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison concert), and is pretty well paced for the most part. Covering more than 10 years of someone's life in just under three hours wouldn't be easy, and Duncan and Sadwith have done a good job, although events are compressed a bit too much in part two.
The only real extra on the disc (besides a pair of previews) is a collection of deleted scenes adding to a little over seven minutes. They still have time codes on them, but on at least one of them, there's soundtrack music, and they look about as good as anything in the final cut. There's also a booklet, with liner notes by Richard Harland Smith that provide an interesting history of Elvis portrayals over the years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Anytime a biography of any kind is authorized or officially sanctioned by the subject or the subject's family, I'm inclined to be skeptical over how much whitewashing is done in the presentation. On first glance, Elvis: The Mini-Series appears to avoid this, but really, is there anyone out there who is remotely familiar with Elvis's story that doesn't know he popped pills and had a temper? If the filmmakers had really wanted to go for broke, they should have started this mini-series where it ends, and charted Elvis' decline into an overweight, drug-addicted parody of himself. Or at least they could have dug deeper with the material they ended up going with. It would have been interesting to see the Colonel-Elvis relationship in more detail. We know the Colonel was a shrewd operator but, as Elvis is told time and time again in the mini-series, he's the King, he's the talent. If the Colonel doesn't do what he wants, why can't Elvis just kick him to the curb? Was there really no one else out there to represent Elvis? Duncan feebly attempts to explain this away with some notion that when a Presley makes a promise, it must be kept, which is ridiculous, even if it was true. There had to be more to their relationship than that. And what about Priscilla? She and her family's motivations have been the subject of an awful lot of speculation over the years, which would have been ripe material, if admittedly gossipy and sensational.
Duncan's script can get awfully corny sometimes, particularly in the second act. In addition, the scenes of Gladys worrying about Elvis get old after the umpteenth time, and the dialogue given to Manheim to spout in these scenes undermines what is otherwise a solid performance. There are other moments when things get laughably melodramatic, like when Elvis breaks up with Dixie (Jennifer Rae Westley), an early squeeze:
Dixie: I need to spend some more time with you.
The first part, while written better, is pretty much by the numbers, and it doesn't really seem like it delivers anything new. The second half, on the other hand, tries to compress too many significant parts of Elvis' life (like his religious episode) into too little time.
It probably wasn't realistic to expect a truly warts-and-all portrayal of Elvis Presley from a production officially sanctioned by the Presley estate. Even still, more care could have been taken with the script. Overall, while Elvis: The Mini-Series is severely flawed at times, the performances, production values, and use of actual Elvis recordings make this worth at least a rent or Netflix selection, if not an outright buy.
The cast, Chapman, and Joffin are not guilty. Duncan, Sadwith, and the Presley Estate are guilty for not taking this mini-series as far as it could have gone.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Starz Home Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
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