Some folks think it’s odd when they find out that I’m such a huge fan of Elvis Presley, as his career was before my time. But it was this movie, released two years after Elvis’ death, that ended up turning me on to Elvis. I must have been around 11 when I saw it, and I can’t quite explain why, but something about this man’s life, as it was presented here, fascinated me. And that lead to me looking up and reading more about him, and even got a few of his albums back in the day. I just got this movie and watched it again, and it still holds up, all these years later. Although it is interesting to see what is portrayed differently, and what is left out, about Elvis’ life. Details we’re more aware of now, than perhaps the public was in 1979.
Written by Anthony Lawrence, and directed by John Carpenter, this film stars Kurt Russell as Elvis. The film begins in 1969, with Elvis getting ready to perform live in concert in Las Vegas,for the first time in over 10 years, after spending that time making movies. Elvis is feeling unsure of himself, wondering if he’s ready, and as he watches a news report of him on TV, he pulls out a gun and shoots the screen. That’s a clear indication that things aren’t right. Then it flashes back to Elvis has a young boy, going to the cemetery to visit the grave of his twin brother Jesse, who was stillborn. Elvis talks to his brother, as if his spirit is listening to him. This becomes a bit of a recurring theme, as it is something Elvis does even as an adult, we are lead to believe that he always felt as if something was missing in his life, and it makes him feel better to “talk” to him, when he’s alone. Then the movie continues with Elvis’ life from his beginnings in the music industry to his “comeback” on stage in 1969. It’s pretty much the same territory we’d see in later depictions of Elvis’ live, such as the 2005 Showtime miniseries which I reviewed HERE.
What’s interesting to note, now watching this film again for the first time in a couple of decades, is seeing the things that are left out of this film, some of the later details of Elvis’ life which are common knowledge now. I guess because this was still relatively soon after his death, not as many people had come forward to speak or write about him yet. For example, Colonel Tom Parker, played here by Pat Hingle, isn’t showcased that much here, as if his role in Elvis’ career is downplayed. He is shown as taking Elvis to much bigger heights following his break from Sun Records, but the full extent that he controlled Elvis, both financially and creatively, isn’t shown. Also there is no mention of Elvis’ addiction to prescription drugs. We see Elvis exhibiting the signs, as he becomes more withdrawn, moody, and controlling, but it’s more attributed to the pressures of fame, than anything else. Shelley Winters and Bing Russell (Kurt’s father) do a fine job as Elvis’ parents, Gladys and Vernon, with an early emphasis of how close Elvis was to his mother and devastated by her death. But the movie skips over how angry Elvis was when his father remarried so soon after Gladys died. The only weak link I’d say in this film is Season Hubley, who plays Priscilla Beaulieu/Presley. I was just never really convinced by her in the role, and her and Russell lacked chemistry onscreen together, which is ironic since I’ve heard that she and Russell married after this film, but then divorced a few years after that. So I guess they had no chemistry in real life, either.
But the standout is Kurt Russell. His portrayal of Elvis still rings true to me. He’s got the moves, the mannerisms, and the accent down pat. He’s also helped by the fact instead of using Elvis’ real vocals, the film got Country singer Ronnie McDowell to record Elvis’ songs for the film, and when Russell lip-sings them it sounds close enough to Russell’s speaking voice that it looks more realistic. This is a worthy film for any Elvis fan.
Elvis is available on DVD through AMAZON.COM