Elvis as you’ve never seen him

It’s taken 30 years for John Carpenter’s film biography of the King to arrive in Britain.

It’s a strange fact that just as Elvis Presley fans in Britain hoped to see their hero perform here, but were repeatedly denied the chance, so most of them have never seen a hugely popular American biopic that covers the first half of his astonishing career.

Elvis, as the film was simply called, was broadcast on ABC-TV in the US in February 1979, to great acclaim. But though an edited version of the film had a limited release in British cinemas, and it then briefly appeared as a video title, it was abruptly withdrawn for legal reasons involving music rights. Since then, it has been broadcast on British television infrequently and with little fanfare.

Bumpy ride: Kurt Russell plays the rock legend and Season Hubley his young wife, Priscilla, in Elvis

Bumpy ride: Kurt Russell plays the rock legend and Season Hubley his young wife, Priscilla, in Elvis

Finally, after more than three decades, in the 75th anniversary of Presley’s birth, Elvis is being released for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray in its unedited form. And what an intriguing piece of work it turns out to be.

It was directed by John Carpenter, who already had a huge reputation as a genre director, thanks to his wryly amusing space-travel saga Dark Star (1974); Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), his gritty account of a police station besieged by a gang of delinquents; and Hallowe’en (1978), the first in the successful horror franchise.

In Elvis, the title role was played by Kurt Russell, then only 27 and best known as a former child actor. It would be the first of several collaborations between Russell and Carpenter, which included Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From L.A.

I well remember the furore caused by Elvis. I had moved to the US the month before it was broadcast, and was struck by how much this TV movie seemed to dominate the media and people’s everyday conversation. It was a sensational ratings hit.

Russell’s performance as Presley is terrific. He does not resemble the singer, but evokes his spirit, especially the Elvis of the Fifties, from his early hits on Sun Records, being “sold” to RCA for $35,000, up to his being drafted into the US Army in 1958. Russell captures Presley’s onstage sexual menace, specifically his hip-swivelling dance moves, electrifyingly.

It’s no surprise that Russell was rewarded with an Emmy nomination for his performance; it ushered in his film career as a grown-up.

On the subject of casting Russell, Carpenter observed at the time: “What’s the point of getting someone who looks like Elvis and can impersonate him? The thing about Kurt is he’s an instinctive actor. I think he understands Elvis. He’s totally convincing.”

The film begins in 1969, with Presley about to go on stage for a comeback concert in Las Vegas, after many years without performing live. He’s jittery, moody, and afraid he may be the subject of an assassination attempt. Then it flashes back to Elvis as a boy of 10 in Tupelo, Mississippi, and the very start of his interest in music.

While Russell is splendid throughout, the film betrays its origins as an entertainment crafted for a mainstream TV channel with an eye on the concerns of corporate commercial sponsors. It’s a bland retelling of Presley’s story, and the script (by one Anthony Lawrence) sags dismayingly in places.

It’s more interesting for what it omits than what it includes. Presley had died only 18 months before Elvis was broadcast, and his legions of fans were still grieving. It’s possible that a tougher, more objective view of his life was felt to be too contentious.

Certainly the film’s focus on his life only up to 1969 removed the necessity to deal with the sad decline of his latter years: his weight gain, health issues, problems with barbiturates and dependence on painkillers.

Here, Presley is portrayed as a simple, dutiful, upright young man who loves his mother (played by Shelley Winters, in a gloriously over-the-top turn.)

There’s no hint of Elvis’s well-documented womanising – between a high-school sweetheart and his wife Priscilla Beaulieu, there’s only a walk-on part by an actress playing film star Natalie Wood, who dated Presley briefly.

As for Priscilla, the film relates without comment the courtship between a 25-year-old man, who happens to be the world’s most famous singer, and a 14-year-old girl. Priscilla, incidentally, is played by Season Hubley, who married Russell in March 1979, the month after the film was broadcast. (They divorced four years later.)

And Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, receives an easy ride, too. As played by Pat Hingle, he comes across as a gruff, likeable old scallywag.

There is no suggestion that he did a disservice to Presley’s remarkable talents by manacling him to a long succession of largely awful Hollywood films. Some scenes show Presley railing against the banality of these movies, but Colonel Tom’s culpability is never discussed.

Lastly, at 168 minutes, Elvis is overlong. Its narrative is too superficial and baldly episodic to support such an epic running time.

Yet there is a fascinating element at its heart: Presley’s life became a template for modern celebrity, in the sense that fame overwhelmed him.

This becomes obvious in scenes that find him holed up in his palatial mansion Graceland. He is globally famous and has everything money can buy, yet he cannot walk down the street unmolested. His marriage to Priscilla is under pressure, and he is surrounded by “the Memphis Mafia,” a group of yes-men who laugh dutifully at his corny jokes and produce lighters whenever Presley moves in the vicinity of a cigarette.

In one telling exchange with Priscilla, Presley tells her he would give a million dollars just to be an ordinary nobody for a while. Elvis portrays this sense of frustration and imprisonment with real feeling.

There is a poignancy in the film about a man whose dreams and ambitions came true to an extent he could never have imagined – yet found himself wanting less.

source: telegraph.co.uk

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