The filmography of John Carpenter may not be one that initially seems like it could be home to the legend known as Elvis Aaron Presley as the King would surely hold uneasy company with the likes of Michael Myers, killer Plymouth Furys and invading aliens that can only be seen with a special type of sunglasses. And yet anyone who knows anything about the career of one of harrow’s most influential filmmakers that without this 1979 TV movie, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest actor/director combos in genre history – that of Carpenter and frequent muse Kurt Russell.
While the flashy Gates of Graceland may seem like a million miles away from a dystopian New York of the future (or, at least 1997), a frozen outpost in the arctic or a section of Chinatown loaded with mystery and magic; it created a partnership that reaped cult movie gold.
Its July of 1969, and Elvis Presley is wracked with nerves as he waits to go on stage at the International Hotel in Las Vegas for his first live performance in eight years. Mixed with the news that an assasin is reportedly gunning for him, his growing anxiety causes him to brood inbetween the odd bout of putting a bullet into a television set that’s questioning whether Presley still has what it takes. As he glares introspectively from underneath that iconic pompadour, we’re taken through a rollercoaster trip through his past all the way back to his childhood that rockets us all the way up to the present that stops at all the main points inbetween.
Starting as a shy sensitive you boy growing up in Memphis, we Elvis’ outcast status due to his James Dean-esque swagger pay off when his prowess at rock and roll explodes into a sensation.
Desperate to make sure his doting mother has an easier life, Presley rides that steadily rising wave of fame, moving his folks out of their pokey house and into a palatial estate Elive names Graceland, but despite trying to keep his entourage around him to remind him of home, a gruelling work load that takes in touring, recording, writing and even being a heart-throb on the silver screen begins to take its toll.
Starting to find that all the adulation his music (not to mention his particular brand of lip curling and leg jiggling) brings all a little hollow, further turmoil is added to Elvis’ life with the draft to go to war, his mother’s sickness and the arrival of the 14 year old Priscilla Beaulieu who would go on to be his wife – and soon the strain starts to show as he pulls back from public performances entirely.
Can the man dubbed Elvis the Pelvis manage to reignite that spark for performing and prove to himself and the world that he’s still the king before his inner demons manage to extinguish it for good?
Those more familiar with the visual fireworks of modern music bios such as Bohemian Rapsody, Rocketman and, yes, Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic Elvis, may find John Carpenter’s swing at the King a little too meat and potatoes for their liking. As you’d expect from a TV movie helmed in 1979, the movie is far more interested in telling its version of Presley’s life in a virtual straight line after its 1969 set opening with almost no speed bumps at all. Actually, sanitized may be the word you’re looking for, as it glosses over many infamous aspects of the legends life that may have raised the eyebrows of TV censors back in the late 70’s with the cutthroat antics of Colonal Tom Parker (here only portrayed in a handful of scenes by Pat Hingle) and Priscilla Presley’s age both mentioned but then moved on without commentary. The movie also makes no solid mention to his gargantuan opioid addiction either, choosing to rose tint Elvis’ journey to a point where, apart from a decade of frustrated brooding and some marital troubles, newbies may actually wonder why he died so early at all.
However, despite the type of music biopic melodrama that was so capably spoofed in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (from his high school days to adulthood, Presley literally doesn’t age a day), if you want a crisp, simple, A to B story about the life of Elvis Presley with as little scandal as possible, then despite its simplistic nature, Elvis is the movie for you.
While the directorial flourishes shown by Carpenter in such movies as Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween may be noticable by their absence (no four minute, Michael Myers style POV shot as Elvis grasps his guitar and makes his way to the stage, unfortunately), he still presents each stage in Presley’s life in concise bites that are broken up by copious – and understandable – needle drops of the King’s discography, which often make the rather dry style go down way more smoother than it should. However, be it from a limited budget or simply because of the script’s decision to try a build to something, there’s a surprisingly small amount of scenes that contain Elvis actually performing to a screaming crowd – something that’s glaringly weird in a nearly three hour music biopic of a man with legendary performance skills. Still, this could very well be me being a bit too harsh mainly because of the year it was made and my own admitted dislike for biopics, but no matter what my complaints may be, their is one aspect about the movie I can’t pick at. However, whenever Carpenter does show some flare (Elvis chatting to his own shadow while addressing his dead, kid brother), it certainly stands out.
Despite being laden with a capable supporting cast (Shelly Winters, Ed Begley Jr, Season Hubley, Joe Mantegna) there’s still the sizable issue of the fact that it’s virtually impossible to do an accurate Elvis Presley impersonation without it decending into parody and yet Kurt Russell doesn’t just manage it – he embodies Presley to an impressive degree, steadily holding the voice and swagger while still managing to pull off all the emotional stuff. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised considering that Russell has proven that he’s a keen mimic in the past, invoking the posture and speech patterns of such legends as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne in such films as Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China and Death Proof, but if you needed one single reason to watch Elvis (aside from the King’s superlative back catalogue, which isn’t sung by the charismatic lead), then Russell is all the reason you’d need.
Amittedly hamstrung by its rather dated nature and a stubborn refusal to be controversial, Elvis is still required viewing for its lead performance along which ranks as one of the best tribute acts you’re ever likely to see.
Containing lots of rock, but virtually little roll, Russell’s stunning performance will still make you hail to the King.