Posted on Sunday, March 7th, 2010 by Hunter Stephenson
Weekend Weirdness’ favorite J.C. directed a nearly three hour epic about The King starring his main man Snake Plissken, and yet the film was at risk of being forgotten by younger generations. How could this occur when the movie in question, John Carpenter‘s Elvis, is arguably a better country music biopic than Walk the Line, and exudes an unpretentious but fetching style reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory? Well, until this week, Elvis wasn’t available on DVD, and the film’s prior home video presence was spotty at best.
Originally made and aired as a high profile ABC mini-series in ’79—only two years after Elvis Presley had exited Earth for the celestial kingdom to join his momma—the project remains an anomaly for Carpenter in terms of genre and medium. Like several of our readers, I was moderately aware of the film’s existence in the past but figured, “It’s probably a rather safe family deal. No rush.” And yet Elvis historically marked the first collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell, sparking a legendary partnership (The Thing, Big Trouble Little China, Escape from New York) and making this too-probable footnote an important one.
Carpenter—who would be in my top five directors of all time simply for making They Live—was not a rookie going into the production. He had wrapped Halloween shortly before Elvis and has claimed over the years that his celebrated score to Halloween is what landed him the gig. (To hear him tell it, Elvis producers apparently found his ability to craft unsettling synth jams qualification enough.) Included on the new DVD is a grainy on-the-set featurette, wherein a longhaired Carpenter in dark sunglasses states that he’s a longtime fan of Elvis Presley and his music. He adds that he was intrigued by the man’s gradual transformation into a mythic icon, and one might infer a certain empathy via heady ambition and artistic brilliance.
At film’s start, my eye for Carpenter’s signature attitude and dedication to cool was registering high, and almost thrillingly so. We are introduced to The King half-slouched in a hotel room of rich reds as he watches fictional cowboys and Indians war it out on television. Russell, then an electric 27 years old, is playing The King in 1969, later into Presley’s career, but he more than looks the part: jet black hair, thick ‘burns, gold rings, gold watch, gold jangle, quivering upper lip on a break.
In these introductory scenes, Russell stares with intense quiet out of Presley’s gold plated sunglasses, the iconic and vain shades connoting a double-minted Vegas deity. It’s evident in just minutes that Russell is playing the man larger-than-life and reveling in it. (If you’re a Carpenter fan, it’s easy to imagine the director doing back flips at finding the perfect actor/vessel to channel his acute punkish energy.) When the television set switches to a not-so-favorable news report about Elvis’s vitality in current pop music, Elvis stays calm, reveals a pistol, and proceeds to shoot the screen. It shatters in prolonged close-up. In other words, Carpenter is saying, “we love Elvis as much as you, but don’t get too comfortable.”
We then fade to Elvis’s impoverished childhood in Mississippi, where a very young Elvis is shown visiting the makeshift grave site of his twin brother. Immediately after, we see young Elvis speaking near the site to his deceased twin by way of his own reflection in shallow water. An obnoxious, ginger-haired bully then accuses Elvis of talking to himself like a weirdo and lays into him. It might sound like routine stuff, but the next scene, of young Elvis running under a canopy of trees against the wind, before a storm in hushed silence, is as staggeringly beautiful for its vinyl-cover-art composition as its rebel-romanticism.
The above scene exemplifies what was and is so great about Carpenter: he embraces the fun, indulgent imagery and comforting beats of populist genres and entertainment—whether it be horror, sci-fi, a gang picture, or the televised All-American biopic—and perfects them right in the face of high culture snobbery. (In a later scene, Elvis’s momma takes a sharp jab at the biased, fair-weathered write-ups of “Yankee” critics at The New York Times.)
Before he strikes fame and riches, Russell’s Elvis is constantly shown combing and primping his hair, in bathroom mirrors or in a movie theater. It makes no difference. He drives a working-class-truck, spends his work breaks observing black blues musicians, and loves to shop for flamboyant silky pink shirts. Seeing old images of Elvis performing in concert during my youth (my mom is a fan), I definitely noticed his heavily tended appearance; Elvis Presley is likely the first male artist I was consciously aware wore a female’s amount of make-up. Carpenter’s Elvis feels masterfully fresh today for depicting how the character developed tastes in style and image to suggest the later rise of glam-rock.
Elvis Presley’s well-documented and obsessively c0-dependent relationship with his mother (nicely played by Shelly Winters) slowly takes on an Oedipal-like structure and dysfunction. The conservative standards for primetime T.V. in the ’70s aside, the film explores the “Pelvis Elvis” cultural sensation, using well executed shots of girls going bananas at stage front like fainting cattle, and seems to deliberately exclude any scenes that would imply a real hetero sex drive for the star.
Elvis has a fair string of girlfriends in the film, but they are almost always kept at a distance or forgotten. One such girl memorably calls his fashion tastes “peculiar,” and if one criticism of the film is how little these females/romances are fleshed out, including Priscilla Presley, I’m not sure it wasn’t intentional. (As in real life, Presley didn’t marry until after his mother had died.) I have to wonder if fans of Elvis’s gospel roots weren’t irked by a few scenes with minor homoerotic subtext, particularly one encounter in a high school restroom in the first half.
Shots of period-accurate automobiles cruising in downtown Tennessee add to the movie’s dreamy sense of atmosphere. When Elvis hits the ground running in the studio at Sun Recordings, Carpenter begins to entertain the role of fate and foggy predestination in his life. We see an overworked Elvis falling asleep at the wheel and veering into an oncoming lane, a moment meant to induce alternative outcomes, no doubt resulting in a montage of spinning newspapers with tragic headlines. A separate nighttime chase has a built-in televised innocence, but there is a spooky quality to it. (A coinciding shot of headlights reminded me of the poster and scenes from Carpenter’s 1983 Stephen King adaptation, Christine, about a homicidal ’58 Plymouth. Christine, it should be noted, similarly featured suggestive scenes of bromance.)
The strength and investment of Russell’s performance, admittedly too briefly discussed here, must be seen, especially in the film’s numerous musical numbers and reenactments. There might be too many musical interludes for viewers with no appreciation for the subject’s hits, but the overall effect is a life lived fully in performance and thus prematurely exhausted. The film ends where it starts, in 1969, before Elvis’s “fat and troubled years” really took a toll. (He died in ’77.)
Elvis contains one of the best performances of Russell’s career, and as with Johnny Depp and Hunter Thompson or Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Terminator later, he was fine with not completely shaking off and being associated with the character’s mannerisms for years afterward. The film ends on an image of The King staring out into an applauding but unremarkable audience, an image open to interpretation, which Carpenter makes sure stays with the viewer. It may have taken a few decades to experience, but it will surely last for decades more.
/Film Rating: 8.0 out of 10
Hunter Stephenson can be reached on Twitter.