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.
Steve Martin burst onto the national radar with his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978). He followed that success by starring in his first feature film, the box office bonanza The Jerk (1979) directed by Carl Reiner and co-starring his then-current flame, Bernadette Peters. Although The Jerk was merely crass instead of authentically humorous, Martin and Peters re-teamed for Herbert Ross’ winningly experimental Pennies From Heaven (1981).
Predictably, American audiences smelled something new with the film, and stayed away. Many critics were more astute and praised the film, which prompted Martin and Reiner to briefly follow that attempted path of originality in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Man With Two Brains (1983). Alas, like the rest of that decade, what started in a burst of creative energy petered out midway through and succumbed to formula.
Paralleling the rise and fall of the 1980s was Martin’s work as an interesting artist. He simply ceased to take chances after his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and rendered himself irrelevant. In contrast, Peters continued to challenge herself, instead of taking the safe route. It is her post Pennies career, rather than Martin’s, which is more consistently satisfying. Continue reading