Elvis

Elvis ★★★½

The cable and internet have been off since Thursday (when AT&T was digging up and down the street and apparently cut a line), so I started digging into DVDs and Blu-rays I've bought over the years but never actually got around to watching.

First up was the 1979 Elvis TV-biopic, the first of five collaborations between star Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter. I'd expected to break this up over two nights, but damned if I didn't get totally absorbed in it, thanks mostly to Russell's mesmerizing performance. He doesn't exactly look like Elvis, but he nails the voice and the physicality, especially the stage moves. He's really going for it, and it's quite a performance. The movie's a bit of a family affair, with Kurt's dad Bing Russell (who I Iast saw profiled in the excellent doc The Battered Bastards of Baseball) portraying Vernon Presley, and Kurt's soon-to-be wife Season Hubley playing Priscilla. Shelley Winters and Pat Hingle shine in their respective roles of Elvis's mother Gladys and Colonel Tom Parker.

While Carpenter's direction isn't as distinctive as in his features, compared to most telefilms it's downright cinematic. There are car-mounted cameras, hallway tracking shots, and one beautiful rotating camera depicting Elvis's censored appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, allowing us to see the broadcast version, via the camera operators dutifully filming the King from the waist up (thus avoiding the dangerous pelvis which had become a national concern), while also showing us Russell head to toe in his full hip-gyrating, stanky-legged glory.

I would have this at 4 or 4.5 stars if not for a fairly confusing final act, where Elvis suddenly becomes a controlling jerk without much explanation as to why. It implies that it's a combination of him disliking the lightweight movies he was making + the isolating nature of his fame, but never touches on the drug issues (the movie ends in 1969 at the beginning of his return to live performing, but I think it's accepted he was self-medicating with pills long before then).

Not perfect by any means, but a must-see for Russell fans, Elvis cultists, and Carpenter completists.

👑 The movie doesn't explicitly comment on the oddly close relationship Elvis had with his mother, but it's definitely there. In all the scenes with Elvis and his parents, it's clear that the quiet and unassuming Vernon is the odd man out.

👑 The vocals on all the musical numbers are handled by country singer Ronnie McDowell, and, given the enormity of his task, he does a credible job.

👑 The film doesn't explain that Priscilla was only 14 when Elvis first meets her, though her father does characterize her as a "child."

👑 There's a brief scene with Elvis trying repeatedly to jump-start a remote controlled plane while the Memphis Mafia and their wives/girlfriends look on. Defeated, he stands up and multiple hands thrust out, vying to light his cigarillo. I can only assume this was included so Russell could snurl a "Thank you very much."

👑 Did Elvis ever record a version of "Unchained Melody?" McDowellvis sings this a couple of times in the movie, and it's quite good.

👑 The jumpsuit Kurt Russell is wearing on the poster and in the closing performance at the Vegas International Hotel is one of Elvis's actual stage outfits.

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