John Carpenter’s 2-part TV biopic of Elvis Presley finally makes its debut on DVD after a long absence on home video, and time has been a bit a lot kinder to what was a carefully plotted but quick cash-in on he singer’s popularity, two years after his death.
That’s partly due to Kurt Russell’s strong physical performance, as well as the brooding persona he creates, shaping Elvis into a man driven by creative energies and an excitement to prove himself with little interest in failure. Russell also manages to walk a fine line between evocation and mimicry when delivering dialogue and simple gestures (walking, glancing, pondering), and the musical performances are highly energetic; only the lip-syncing to Ronnie McDowall’s pre-recorded tracks are weak, suffering from a lot of drift.
The biopic’s first half is its strongest, up until the arrival of Priscilla Beaulieu (Season Hubley) at Graceland, after which the ennui of celebrity and Elvis’ career stagnation settle in, giving veteran TV writer Anthony Lawrence (1988’s Liberace) little material of interest. The King’s gradual unhappiness and marital discord are banal, and scenes are often cluttered with horribly underwritten characters that have little to do except stand or sit in scenes while Russell looks depressed.
It’s a marked contrast from the first half, because in spite of the giant age leaps between the historical figure and the actors – Russell, then 27, plays a high school Elvis with other twentysomething co-stars – the sense of Presley’s feeling different and wanting to pursue a dream in music are engaging. Shelley Winters also gives her character, momma Gladys Presley, a fair bit of subtext, making sure the strong bond between mother and son doesn’t devolve into a weird oedipal drama.
Elvis’ father Vernon (played by Russell’s real father, Bing Russell), though, has nothing to do except hang around. With the exception of one exchange – father telling son he’ll support Elvis career choice if it’s what’ll make him happiest – he’s just ‘there,’ and usually looks worrisome, or puts his hand on Elvis’ shoulder in times of trouble. Writer Lawrence completely missed opportunities to deepen the support and understanding the two shared during Elvis’ rise to international superstar. Priscilla is equally underwritten (the age at which time she met and eventually wed Elvis -14 and 21, respectively - are conspicuously omitted), and her lone meaty scene has her chastising Elvis at dinner for never allowing her to develop her own friendships and career.
Then there’s the Memphis Mafia, the friends Elvis kept on the payroll, of which only one – Red West (Robert Gray) – has some semblance of character. Gray’s performance is already weak, and the character is never seen as more than the loyal friend Elvis retained to the end because one chancy afternoon in high school, Red defended him from a bunch of slick bullies.
Red also appears in a key scene that signals the script’s increasing clumsiness in the teleplay’s second part: on the day of Elvis’ wedding, he’s told he’s only allowed to attend the reception by “Joe” – a character who’s given no intro nor any explanation for suddenly being present throughout the rest of the film as a loyal member of the entourage. The character will only register fast with Elvis fans as Joe Esposito (played by a young Joe Mantegna), but the lazy writing and clumsily assembled final scenes never explain why the power shift occurred, and Red was marginalized for a while.
Colonel Tom Parker, the mastermind behind Elvis’ commercial success, is treated rather slyly by the filmmakers. While he isn’t portrayed as a manipulator nor cause of Elvis’ career decline, forcing him to star in a batch of vapid comedy musicals during the sixties, Pat Hingle’s performance is clever enough in inferring a man who saw money in the young Elvis, and knew how to push him into projects lacking dramatic and creative meat.
With the dramatized relationships lacking substantive depth, the teleplay eventually devolves into a soft comic book, hitting the key events – early music success, marriage to Priscilla, birth of Lisa Marie, career frustration – before returning to opening Las Vegas scene where Elvis is about to begin his 1969 Las Vegas comeback tour.
In the 2005 teleplay starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the focus was on the classic Elvis – lithe, brooding, and his musical fusion of rock, blues, gospel, and acoustic sounds – culminating in the ‘68 special, whereas for the 1979 biopic, the filmmakers chose to build the drama towards the ’69 Vegas show, which showcased the larger, electrified rock band sound that dominated his seventies output.
In both productions, though, the cut-off point ensured the later Elvis – heavier, and somewhat comical for his jumpsuit wardrobe and karate-inspired choreography – wouldn’t affect the idyllic memory of a major pioneer of American music. Lawrence’s script, however, never explains why Elvis was relevant to the development of rock & roll, and that’s perhaps tied to the teleplay being produced in 1979: it presumed everyone knew the finer details, whereas in the 30+ years since his death, those omissions hamper an otherwise ambitious TV production.
John Carpenter’s direction is fairly sedate, covering dramatic dialogue scenes in lengthy master shots, and giving Russell plenty of room to display his sharp physical rendition of Elvis’ concert and live TV performances. Carpenter loves to shoot in ‘scope (2.35:1 being his favourite), but there’s no sense that the teleplay, broadcast in the 1.33:1 ratio, was ever shot with an eye towards a future widescreen presentation. The film was chopped down to 117 mins. for a European theatrical run (mandating some matting), but Elvis looks like a generic TV movie, with only Carpenter’s slow tracking shots inferring bits of the director’s style.
Shout factory’s decision to matte the teleplay to 1.78:1 is a bit aggravating at times – the opening scene in the Presley house chops off Shelley Winters’ head when she walks towards Elvis – but an A/B comparison with the original broadcast version shows the full frame transfer did chop off info on the sides at times, in spite of offering slightly more information at the top and bottom. Shout apparently went back to the negative for a new transfer, and the image was recomposed to 1.78:1; the picture is sharper, the colours are clean and stable, and the only flaws are the odd tight shot (likely due to a compromise to hone in on a shot’s most vital info) as well as the fade in/fadeout shots where the optical transitions affected image sharpness. The preference would’ve been a less tighter 1.66:1 ratio, and one wonders if Carpenter would’ve sanctioned the cropping to keep widescreen TV owners happy. (The teleplay was released August 16th on Blu-ray by Freemantle in the U.K., although the set doesn’t offer a choice between the original and newly cropped versions.)
The DVD’s audio is adequate, but it’s the same flat mono sound typical of the era’s TV movies. The volume dynamics are low, and there’s little bass, robbing the songs of some power. The score by Joe Renzetti (Child's Play) is a nice surprise, though, as he created some gentle guitar pieces for the quiet scenes between Elvis and Gladys, and when he attempts to converse with his dead brother; and dissonant cues for moments of conflict, forming an effective contrast against the heavily melodic songs that pepper the film.
One big flaw that’s sure to irritate fans is the omission of “Burning Love,” which Russell performs at the very end in the Vegas sequence before the montage that closes the teleplay, and is followed by the end credits. The original finale of three songs instead of the current two – “Blue Suede Shoes” and “The Wonder of You” – gave a better impression of a concert, and ended the teleplay on a punchy high note in spite of the song being first performed in 1972. Like the concert documentary Elvis on Tour (1972), the deletion of a song due to rights issues isn’t good news for fans, but at least it doesn’t affect the integrity of the drama.
McDowall’s vocal performances of key songs are quite solid, and he appears alongside Elvis’ cousin Edie Hand in the DVD’s commentary track. Even with two people exchanging memories, their dialogue starts to wane after the first 70-odd mins., and most of what’s said are sporadic and very minor comments of onscreen moments, and repeated nods to Elvis. The silent gaps aren’t horrendous, but the dead spots and eventual repetition and redundancy of their comments could’ve been fixed by a moderator, an historian, other participants.
Fans of Carpenter and Russell will certainly bemoan a serious missed chance to get the two to reminisce about production specifics – their chats on The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China DVDs are superb and lively – and one wonders if either was approached for this release, or whether this disc came together quickly to meet a March street date, timed for the King’s the 75th birthday anniversary.
Other extras include a stills gallery (ending with the “Elvis: The Movie” poster for the 117 min. cut), a vintage 1979 making-of promo (featuring interviews with Carpenter and Winters, the latter having known Elvis when he came to Hollywood and dated Nathalie Wood in the fifties), and a montage of material from two nights in which Dick Clark (who also produced this teleplay) mounted a pair of “Elvis Day” episodes for the teen music show American Bandstand in 1964. Besides asking four teens on whether they prefer The Beatles or Elvis, and whom they would date, there’s an audio phone call with gossip columnist Rona Barrett on whether Elvis and Priscilla were secretly married in Germany, and Clark referring to Elvis as “the Big E.”
John Carpenter would reteam with Kurt Russell on Escape from New York in 1981 (and Season Hubley, in a small cameo), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Escape from L.A. (1996).
Other dramatizations about the King include the TV mini-series Elvis (1990), the 2005 mini-series, TV series Elvis (2006), and the TV movies Elvis and the Beauty Queen (1981), Elvis and Me (1988) and Elvis and The Colonel: The Untold Story (1993).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan