The life of Elvis Presley is the perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.
Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get, growing up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.
Elvis, the dirt poor mama’s boy, filled his flights of fancy with whipped cream dreams of being a movie star more than anything else; but it was his voice, extrovert sexual chemistry, being in the right place at the right time, coupled with an insatiable, singular drive, and securing shrewd management, that catapulted him into the status of an American icon.
One element that is sorely missing from all of the films and documentaries on him was Elvis’ early sense of perfection in the recording studios. He often demanded up to forty takes for a single song. Rolling Stone Critic Dave Marsh once said: ‘Elvis may not have been rock and roll’s greatest artist, but he was it’s greatest singer.”
Elvis was one of the first and certainly the biggest artist whose career was built on eclecticism. The Elvis Presley persona was birthed from what he knew and what he wanted to be in his Walter Mitty-like romantic fantasies. Elvis was part Mahalia Jackson (his gospel recordings are second only to hers), part Dean Martin, part James Dean, part Marlon Brando, and part Rudolph Valentino. Later, both Sammy Davis and Liberace would be added to the mix.
As archaic as the myth and screen presence of silent screen Rudolph Valentino seems now, its impact and influence was remarkable. Bela Lugosi filtered a Valentino mystique through his cryptic portrayal of Dracula. Elvis imitated Valentino’s jet black hair and prominent sideburns, recollecting the Latin lover in dark look, eyes, lips, and smoldering sexuality.
And, like Marlon Brando, it did not matter how bloated and caricatured Elvis became; there was an undeniable and fascinating presence even at his nadir. Unlike Brando, Elvis charisma was not in acting skills, of which he had none. Elvis came to life in musical performance. Even in his later performances, which ranged from zombie-like (Aloha from Hawaii – 1973) to blubbering incoherent train wreck (concert footage from This is Elvis – 1981), Elvis magnetically commanded attention. When the singer was in his prime, in the pre-army years and in his 1968 comeback special, he personified Americana as much as the fourth of July.
The reason Carpenter’s film works, in part, is due to actor Kurt Russell. Russell, under Carpenter’s direction, etches a character performance as memorable as the Carpenter directed Snake Plissken (Escape from New York – 1981) and R.J. McReady (The Thing – 1982). Of course, Russell was helped a bit by lip-syncing Ronnie McDowell’s vocals, and also by a supporting cast including Shelly Winters as Gladys (Elvis’ mom), Bing Russell as Vernon (Russell’s dad playing Elvis’ dad) and Pat Hingle (later, Commissioner Gordon in Tim Burton‘s Batman) as Colonel Parker. This is no Albert Goldman-type bio (of course that great trash, pop culture book had not yet been published), and it bypasses a good deal of the King’s carny side.
Carpenter’s film ends with the 1969 return to Vegas and omits the numerous affairs, sexual hang-ups, drug use, the reasons behind his divorce from Priscilla (Season Hubley), and even the 1968 comeback special. Of course, Carpenter was not yet a name director (that status was just a few months away with Halloween) but he approaches this TV assignment like a feature film.
Elvis was released before the claims of drug abuse were officially verified (by Geraldo Rivera on 20/20, later the same year), before Albert Goldman’s muckraking bio, and before a slew of tell-all books. So, much of the seamier information about the King that we now have was not yet readily available when this movie was made. This undeniably renders it dated, but Carpenter’s focused narrative almost makes up for losses. Of course, the Memphis Mafia, the temper (i.e., shooting out television sets when a program he disliked came on), his justifiable disdain for the movies he was obligated to make, and his gifts of Cadillacs, are all covered. Russell’s acting parallels Carpenter’s direction. Russell (who, as a child actor, acted with Elvis) is impressively natural in his role and refrains from self-conscious imitation. Russell is not so concerned with capturing the Elvis as he is in doing justice to a role, which is why his remains the best celluloid portrayal to date. Russell’s electric arrogance is hypnotic and, given the epic subject, that is a remarkable feat. If only the screenplay was as good.
If one thought that too much much was made of dead siblings in films of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, those bio pics are downright restrained compared to Elvis’ lifelong obsession over a dead twin, as represented here. In the case of Charles and Cash, they both at least remembered their brothers, where Elvis’ twin died at birth, thus giving little real dramatic drive. Oddly, Elvis’ macabre, almost Victorian choice in courting, molding, and choosing a child bride, who easily could have passed for his sister, is not explored.
Shelly Winters, though good as Elvis’ vulnerable mother, begins to grate and her performance also serves as a mirror to the film, at least in the three hour edition. Elvis takes us from the destitute days in Mississippi, through Sun Records, his overnight fame, super-stardom with the RCA label, the Army (briefly covered), the death of his mother, the movie career slump, and ends on the high-balled comeback. For the most part it’s entertaining, but in a skimmed for high school biography kind of way. That might be passable for a two hour made for television endeavor, but at three hours, what’s missing is the horror.
1981’s This is Elvis (d. Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt) caught that horror, albeit unintentionally. That film set out to be (and promoted itself as) an innovative documentary, mixing recreated scenes with actual footage. Not surprisingly, it was the actual footage of the bloated, straight man’s Liberace, nostalgically slurring through old songs that reveal him to be the exhibitionist American Caesar and genuinely enigmatic Las Vegas Pope, that fascinated.
Elvis wears his pop music jester’s crown for thousands of shrieking fans, who astoundiingly fail to notice that something was askew. The documentary portions reveal Elvis’ power, which the filmmakers attempt, and fail, to diminish with execrable dramatized vignettes and lame attempts to portray Elvis as a normal guy. He was anything but. Horror without tragedy is rendered impotent, and This is Elvis is a grotesquely fascinating film, impotent along with its subject.
These two films are the closest in capturing the popular phenomenon of Elvis Presley, but, like Elvis in his own movies, they do not quite get it right. Only Elvis got it right, in the strength of his life, his performances and in his sweeping mystery.