Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 29, 2010)
Though best known for his horror flicks, John Carpenter took an unusual detour in 1979: a TV biopic about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In Elvis, Kurt Russell plays Presley as we look back at his life.
The film starts in 1969, with Elvis in Las Vegas on the verge of his first general audience concerts in nine years. With that as the set-up, we flash back to 1945 to meet 10-year-old Elvis (Randy Gray) and his first guitar. We follow his relationship with his mother Gladys (Shelley Winters) and father Vernon (Bing Russell) and soon visit him in high school. There he demonstrates a talent for music, and after graduation, he pursues a career as a singer, though he maintains a day job to be practical.
A fortuitous circumstance brings Elvis’s skills to the attention of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Charles Cyphers) and Presley soon enters the studio. One thing leads to another and Elvis quickly becomes a sensation with a new manager: Colonel Tom Parker (Pat Hingle). As the film progresses, we follow Elvis’s meteoric rise and the effect this has on his life.
Over the past 30 years, Elvis earned a reputation as a good film, and compared to the average TV movie, I’d say it deserves to be viewed in a positive manner. However, that doesn’t mean that I think it’s a great – or even especially good – piece of work. While strong compared to its peers, the film seems curiously scattered and moderately lifeless.
My biggest complaint relates to the storytelling. Events just crop up without any natural flow, and it often becomes unclear where we are and who various participants are. Even at 168 minutes, Elvis often feels like an abbreviated – and awkwardly edited – version of a much longer film.
Take the scene that connects to Elvis’s wedding. For reasons unclear, lifelong pal Red West (Robert Gray) gets left out of the ceremony. He confronts Elvis and bam! They’re pals again without any real resolution. Huh?
I understand that no 168-minute movie can adequately encapsulate an entire life – or at least the 24-year span featured here – but Elvis just feels too scattershot to me. If Carpenter didn’t have the time to adequately explore some of these relationships, he should have simply omitted them and focused on more important matters.
Much of the tale concentrates on Elvis’s twin obsessions: his mother and his stillborn twin brother Jesse. Elvis actually does a pretty good job in this area, especially in terms of Elvis’s alternately sad/creepy fascination with the brother he never knew. The sequences in which he speaks to his dead twin provide some of the film’s most insightful; though they could become silly or maudlin, they instead come across as touching and haunting.
The situation with Elvis’s mother is less effective, partially due to a mannered performance by Winters. I think she was a talented actress, but by this point in her career, I don’t believe she could muster much more than stammering and neuroses for any of her characters. She could’ve played Jackie Kennedy and turned her into Woody Allen. Granted, even if Elvis’s mother really was as annoying and off-putting as Winters’ Gladys, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t still idolize her, and I suppose it’s possible that Winters’ performance matches the real Gladys’s personality. I doubt it, though, and I’d have preferred to see a less irritating actor in the part.
My other biggest problem with casting comes from the choice of Season Hubley as Priscilla Beaulieu Presley. That selection worked out great for Russell, as the couple married after meeting on the set. However, at 28, she was just way too old to play the part. Priscilla was a mere 15 when Elvis met her, and she was just 24 at the film’s conclusion. An actress around 20 or 21 would’ve been a better choice, as Hubley looks laughably old when stuck in Priscilla’s teen years.
Russell does better as our title character, and he indeed may be the best aspect of the film. At times his performance tends toward parody, but that’s damned close to unavoidable when Elvis is the subject. Presley has been spoofed so much over the years that we can barely remember what the real man was like; we have such a distorted cartoon image of the King that it becomes tough to view him in any other light.
And Russell occasionally lends a semi-campy air to things, but not often. He handles the role’s physical aspects well and shows us Elvis’s dynamic appeal. He also brings a haunted quality to the part that fits the film’s themes. Elvis helped Russell break out as an adult actor, and he deserved the praise he received.
(By the way, so it doesn’t appear that I’m solely picking on Hubley, Russell also looks pretty ridiculous when forced to play the teen Elvis. However, the 34-year-old Gray’s high school age Red appears even more absurd; Russell looks young and innocent by comparison.)
For the most part, I think Elvis gets things right in historical terms. It does take a few liberties, though. For one, Elvis played The Grand Ole Opry, while the movie lets us think he was rejected for the show. In addition, Elvis and Priscilla didn’t separate until 1972, while the film splits them by 1969.
These alterations aren’t extreme liberties, though. From what I understand, while Elvis did play the Opry, he didn’t go over well and they didn’t ask him back again. In addition, the rift between Elvis and Priscilla did occur, and it happened for the reasons depicted here; it just took place a few years later. Elvis skewed the facts a little, but it got the spirit of the events correct, and I think that helps justify the changes.
Elvis is probably a better film than anyone had a right to expect at the time. It came from a man then known for one successful horror film, and it starred a guy whose biggest claim to fame stemmed from some cheap live-action Disney flicks. Somehow those unlikely partners combined to make a respectable biopic – but not a great one. Elvis proves to be enjoyable but it’s too flawed to really deserve its strong reputation.