In taking another crack at dramatizing the life of Elvis Presley, this recent production had perhaps a bigger, if not greater set of issues to tackle compared to the 1979 John Carpenter TV movie starring Kurt Russell, and the limited 1990 TV series: humanize an artist who's become even more of a commercial icon in the intervening years (according to the end credits, Elvis remains the top-grossing dead celebrity); touch upon the familiar chronological peaks and valleys while offering some new biographical information for fans and newbies; and replicate the energy and artistry that made Elvis an international star.
Patrick Sheane Duncan's script nicely compacts the narrative into a nearly 3 hour running time by moving from his high school years as a misunderstood and teased oddball to the euphoria he felt after completing the taping of his '68 Comeback Special.
The mini-series actually opens with a scene of Elvis getting pre-taping stage fright in front of director Steve Binder, and concludes with the taping itself - an ending that's mostly positive, except that we know from the dramatized relationship between Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker that better film roles, a European tour with old bandmates, and a return to more blues-based rock more or less evaporated over the next few years, before Elvis' death in 1977.
Whether Elvis' move to Las Vegas was a good thing isn't debated in the mini-series; what the filmmakers have tried to show is how Parker's marketing savvy helped publicize and keep Elvis in the minds of fans via staggered releases of singles, albums, compilations, and completed movies, particularly when he was serving in the U.S. Army, yet Parker's exploitation established a commercial persona within which the artist was trapped, and shored up by increasingly vapid musicals that were larded with songs far removed from the hard-edged music of his early years.
The film shows the stagnation and boredom that affected Elvis during the mid-sixties – a period that also becomes the least interesting section of the mini-series in spite of the dramatized conflicts between Elvis, wife Priscilla, and his affair with Ann-Margret (slickly and provocatively played by Rose McGowan) during the filming of Viva Las Vegas (1964). A bored Elvis just isn't fascinating, and that section becomes slow and ponderous, affected by bland depictions of his posse members, and some incredibly stale dialogue designed to get the actors through a smattering of bridging scenes before the Comeback Special.
What augers heavily in favour of this production are the excellent supporting performances by Emmy-nominated Camryn Manheim (as Elvis' mother), Tim Guinee (as the forgotten Sun Records chief Sam Phillips), and Emmy-nominated Randy Quaid (nicely playing the Colonel as a kind of necessary evil who's both supportive, protective, greedy, self-righteous, and monstrous in his ability to instill a seething guilt in Elvis to keep him obedient after the Comeback Special, and into the Vegas years).
Golden Globe winner Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Velvet Underground, and The Tesseract) is quite strong as Elvis, playing him as a keen soul with raw artistry. The musical numbers benefit from the actual recorded performances of Elvis, but that step above prior Elvis dramatizations also sets up a hurdle Meyers can't overcome: his lip-syncing just doesn't match. Director James Steve Sadwith edits around the problem shots without delving into cutty, super-stylized nonsense, but as the centerpiece of each music number, there's only so many cutaways he can use to mask Meyers' inability to match Elvis' inimitable singing style for a meaty length, even in pantomime, and that deeply affects the Comeback Special segment where we need to believe Meyers is Elvis, experiencing an on-camera rebirth as a rock legend.
To the filmmakers' credit, Elvis is not depicted as a caricature, much in the way director Jim McBride turned the life of primordial rocker Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire! (1989) into a whacked-out biopic with candy-coloured set décor, and had Dennis Quaid bulldoze through dramatic scenes like a flat, loud, gesticulating Warner Bros. cartoon character.
To pull off a humanized biography of a pop culture icon after decades of media saturation is perhaps too big a leap, particularly since so much of Elvis' persona and music has become part of our pop culture, and he recurrs in commercial and popular art forms, but as it stands, the 2005 production offers an attractive and efficient recreation of the fifties and sixties, and the emphasis on Elvis as a struggling artistic soul being whitened by the tentacles of corporate America perhaps made it easier for the filmmakers to show Elvis' mounting drug dependency and bouts of infidelity in what's billed as a production approved by the Presley Estate, who perhaps felt it was time to remind fans of the raw talent that radically changed the way music was written, performed, and disseminated among the masses.
Starz Home Entertainment's DVD includes a clean transfer of the beautifully shot mini-series and a decent Dolby 5.1 mix that incorporates the original mono recordings without tweaking them into a fuzzy, fake stereo image; the augmentations allows the music to be appropriately balanced with audience sound effects, and the noise reduction doesn't rob the songs of their raw power. Steve Dorff's original score is too contemporary in style, however, often realizing a less-than realistic dramatic pitch except when small, intimate compositions are applied to scenes of emotional vulnerability.
Also included are 3 deleted scenes: a scene establishing the protective friendship between Elvis and high school jock Red West; an extended version of the funeral for Elvis' mother where he expresses his desire to quit; and a short scene with girlfriend & future wife Priscilla, where he discusses an old flame, and growing up poor.
Richard Harland Smith's liner notes for the DVD booklet provide a brisk tally of the many attempts to dramatize and incorporate Elvis in film and TV productions, and includes a number of titles that have fallen way below the radar, although the 1979 John Carpenter TV movie is still the best-remembered attempt to capture the energy of a legendary entertainer. (Briefly slated for a 2007 DVD release, the postponement of the Carpenter version means it'll be a while longer until we can see whether Kurt Russell's performance has aged well in the intervening years, or like Meyers' interpretation, shows how tough it is to portray such an icon.)
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan