Thursday, February 28, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Elvis (1979)

I'll openly admit I'm not really a fan of movie biopics. I find most of them over-romanticise and over-simplify their subjects. There's no way you can condense a person's life into 120 minutes and still tell a coherent and meaningful story so why bother trying? Real-life just isn't the same as fiction. It's messy and disjointed. The best biopics I've seen are probably Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che films which took the novel idea of just presenting two contrasting revolutions that Che Guevara participated in. Two small time periods rather than a whole life. I'll also admit that I've never been a fan of Elvis as a musician (however I do appreciate the enormous impact he had on rock n roll). So sitting down to watch Elvis I wasn't sure I was going to like it but it did have two things going for it. My favourite director John Carpenter behind the camera and Kurt Russell in front of the camera.

The film begins with Kurt Russell playing a 34 year old Elvis sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room watching the news. He's just about to go on stage for a comeback gig and the news anchor on TV is questioning whether Elvis is still relevant. In frustration Elvis shoots the TV with a gun and then asks his bodyguards to leave him alone for a while. He sits in the dark and reminisces about his life up to that point. Beginning as a bullied boy in Mississippi, living in a log cabin. Then following him through life as a shy high schooler, an aspiring singer, an international sensation, a GI, and finally as a rich but melancholic millionaire. The film focuses particularly on his strong relationship with his mother Gladys (Shelley Winters) and his infatuation with Priscilla Beaulieu (Season Hubley) who he later married.

Despite my concerns about biopics I did enjoy Elvis. I think that it was mostly down to Russell's spot on performance. Elvis Presley is a tricky character to play because he was very much a larger than life figure himself - full of eccentric ticks and quirks. It would be very easy for a lesser actor to slip into parody but Russell never lets that happen. He's always in control of 'The King's' voice and mannerisms. Visually he's a dead ringer too. This was his first major adult acting role after doing a bunch films as a kid with Disney such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Now You See Him, Now You Don't. Carpenter was taking a big risk casting him but it worked out great. I think it probably helped that Russell's own father Bing plays the role of Elvis' father Vernon. They had a naturally rapport with each other.

The production values are pretty high for a TV movie and period detail is great. It feels very authentic and credible. The film was obviously authorised by the Elvis estate so don't expect the film to have any controversial elements to it. It's U rated through and through even when it coasts near controversy such as Elvis falling in love with Priscilla when she's just 14. I think it was a mistake to try and cram so much of Elvis' life into the film. Even watching the 180 minute "uncut" version it's quite disjointed in places. There's very little set-up as to where the characters are and what's going on when the film jumps forward a few years (as it does many times). But I guess this is better than having character talk about what's going on otherwise there's be no time to get to know them as people. I feel Elvis was really made for die-hard fans who already knew most of his life story. Newcomers like me might get a little lost now and then.

I will say if you've seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story it might be a struggle to take Elvis seriously. There's a lot of ideas that Jake Kasdan's pitch-perfect parody stole from this flick. Not least, the opening scenes of a wooden child actor awkwardly segwaying into Russell trying to pass himself off as a 16 year old high schooler. Like I said earlier, the problem with biopics is that they have to force a character arc or thematic resonances on to real people's lives. This film tries to do this a little bit with Elvis talking occasionally to his shadow pretending it's his dead twin brother Jesse but they didn't really go very far with the idea.

All in all, Elvis is a decent if overlong biopic and has a great performance from Russell. It's a decent portrayal of Elvis' life but there's no revelations really. There's little Carpenter touches here and there (and an early cameo if you can spot it) but it's mostly an anonymous work. Carpenter obviously has a lot of affection for 'The King' Just check out Carpenter's own music (somewhat Elvis sounding) from his little known album 'Waiting out the Eighties' by The Coup DeVilles

And, as a bonus, check out a young Kurt Russell kicking Elvis Presley in It Happened at the World's Fair



  1. Kurt Russell as Elvis sounds like one of those ideas those you'd only find in a "What if..." conversation with your buddies. I'll have to check this one out sometime.

  2. Ha, yeah, he's a natural fit though. He also did a heist movie called 3000 miles to Graceland where he played a bank robber who disguised himself as Elvis. That's worth checking out too.

  3. I've been catching up on your "John Carpenter TV work" series– nice work, Jack!