#14 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
Off of his musical compositions in Halloween, John Carpenter was offered the job to direct the television biopic of Elvis Presley’s life from his childhood to the start of his 1970 Las Vegas tour that revitalized his career. Beset by several of the largest cliches of biopics in general, the film manages to rise above its fairly generic construction to a certain degree on two things. The first and foremost is Kurt Russell’s turn as Elvis, the second is that the first half of the film actually feels like a film and not a series of random events in the life of a man.
If you’ve seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, you know the conventions of musical biopics that were torn apart in that Jake Kasdan and company performed with glee, and the first and foremost of those is the flashback structure. A musical legend arrives at the location for his comeback concert and takes a moment to reflect back on his life. Aside from the fact that in the ensuing forty years of film this has become a hoary cliché, I’m not sure what this structure is supposed to accomplish overall from a strict storytelling perspective. Why can’t we just start at the beginning instead of having a flashforward to the end?
Anyway, the story of Elvis’ childhood as presented here is a typical one. He grew up poor, watching his parents deal with the ravages of life without money, all while pining for Elvis’ stillborn twin brother, Jessie. Elvis occasionally talks to Jessie throughout the film, not literally but to his gravestone or Elvis’ own shadow, and I feel like this aspect is really just underdeveloped. Is Jessie supposed to be the idealized form of Elvis that he looks up to somehow? It’s unclear and probably should have simply been cut. However, where the movie does shine is in Elvis’ relationship to his mother. Gladys Presley is played by Shelley Winters, and she’s good in the role, but it’s the time dedicated to their relationship where this movie is best.
Elvis is a good son. He loves his parents, and they love him. Even though his father wants him to get a solid career as an electrician where the work comes looking for him, they allow him to pursue his early dreams of musical stardom, and the stardom comes quickly. He goes from paying for his own album as a present to his mother to trying out at the Grand Old Opry (where he’s rejected) and then playing for sold out crowds all over the place before, all of a sudden, his manager is signing away his contract to a large label. With this sudden influx of money, he spends gobs of money on his parents, buying them houses and cars, dedicating everything to his mother in particular and the hard times she had working in a hospital to help support the family. This is solidly good stuff, made all the better by Russell’s quality performance.
Taking on a role of a well-known personality with well-known mannerisms and patterns of speech is a difficult task for an actor. Lean too far into imitation, and you don’t come out of it. Lean too far away from imitation, and you lose the audience because you don’t resemble the well-known figure. Russell feels dynamic on stage as Elvis, and he feels like a human off stage. He never loses the distinctive voice, but Russell feels like a real person as he acts alongside Shelly Winters and his own father, striving to make them happy through his own success.
The movie loses something, though, after Gladys dies. She passes at about the halfway point of the film, after Elvis has entered the army, and things begin to speed up. What had felt like a solidly told story of a young man becoming a pop star becomes an increasingly quick series of staccato moments as the movie begins skipping through the years. Priscilla is introduced, and I never feel like the movie gets a sense of her as an individual. This may be because the script had to go through Priscilla in real life for approval, and that process may have stripped her character of anything interesting, making her little more than an object in Elvis’ life. There’s also a quick moment where Elvis turns on all of his friends, firing them, and then rehiring him, implying some kind of destabilization in his life, but it never gets explored in any way. I imagine it’s supposed to be tied to Elvis’ loss of his mother, feeling lost in the world without her presence, but the lack of clarity around the actual telling of the story, almost like the movie has changed perspectives from Elvis to an outside observer.
The second half drags the rest of the film down. The strong sense of storytelling of the first half, using the relationship between mother and son as an anchor, is gone, and what we’re left with is the kind of moment chasing so prevalent in biopics trying to capture as much of a life as possible. The whole affair is helped by the nearly three-hour runtime, giving us much more time to see Elvis’ life in detail than a two-hour runtime would have. The second half doesn’t sink the entire film, but it does lessen it. What had been solidly good becomes more rote and less engaging, ending with Russell’s finale as Elvis on stage in Las Vegas, strutting around as The King did.
It ends up as a mixed bag, more so than I had expected. Filmed quickly over 30 days, this is probably the best we could expect from a television movie about a celebrity who had died just a few years before. There’s a great performance at its core, but the actual script needed work.