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John Carpenter’s Elvis: the first of many collaborations between the director and star Kurt Russell

Fresh off the phenomenal success of Halloween

Elvis: Gladys (Shelley Winters) and son (Kurt Russell).
Elvis: Gladys (Shelley Winters) and son (Kurt Russell).

The competition was stiff on February 11, 1979, the night John Carpenter’s Elvis debuted on ABC. Gone With the Wind was on CBS and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was on NBC; both kneeled to the King, both in the Nielsen ratings and in my living room.

Elvis (1979)

It’s not that I was particularly eager to see an Elvis biopic, particularly one produced by America’s oldest teenager and professional sugar-coater, Dick Clark. My horse in the race was director John Carpenter, fresh off the phenomenal success of Halloween. Fans like me were eager to see how Carpenter would handle his first script shorn of action, monsters, and/or aliens — although a convincing argument can be made for Presley as an other-worldly formation. These many years later, curious to see how it compared to Baz Luhrmann’s latest incarnation, I tracked down the Shout Factory! blu-ray, which runs 18 minutes longer than the original airing. Shot in 35mm soft matte — a shortened version screened in Europe — this is the first time Elvis has been presented in its theatrical ratio of 1.78:1. Bigger and wider doesn’t necessarily mean better, however, and while the new version gave Carpenter ample time to show off his characteristic sidelong pans — a shot of a young Elvis running against the wind, leaves blowing in his face, could have been an outtake from Halloween — the overall product proved a typically dead-ahead TV movie that demanded attention for no other reason than this: it marked the first of many collaborations between the director and star Kurt Russell.

It’s 1969: Elvis’s first public appearance after almost 10 years of seclusion. He’s being whisked into the International Hotel just moments before his father Vernon (Bing Russell, Kurt’s pop) buckles to a ransom demand of $50,000 to prevent the psycho on the other end of the phone from killing his boy. If the film’s limited budget were a reflection of the number of anachronisms housed within, this would have held its premiere in dime stores across America. That’s a decidedly late-‘70s-looking John Carpenter lighting a cigarette at the gaming table. Priscilla’s (Season Hubley, then Kurt’s wife) hair is all wrong, far too soft and bouncy when compared to the Aquinet construction helmet that topped the real-life Mrs. Presley. A flashback drops us in the only 1956 guitar store in the world that had a lobby standee from Fritz the Cat adorning its wall. The RCA logo on the Heartbreak Hotel gold record looks a tad ‘70s in style. And if Love Me Tender was released in 1956, why does the film’s director, presumably Robert D. Webb, appear to have spent the night in the disco-inspired Men’s Department of Montgomery Wards?

The ghost of Jesse Garon Presley, the King’s twin brother who died in childbirth, haunts every Elvis biography, but seldom evokes the feelings of emptiness the director and star bring here. The shadowplay dialogue exchange between Elvis and his lost other half show that Carpenter was up to the task — but Dick Clark, and to a certain degree screenwriter Anthony Lawrence, weren’t aiming for art. Lawrence had three features to his credit, all mid-period Elvis outings: Roustabout, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and Easy Come, Easy Go. In this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt: Clark would have none of that, nor does it produce much in the way of finding fresh ways of covering the stale truths. (Presley died two years before the film aired, and there’s no mention of drugs.) And the sand-on-the-tracks performance by a blubbering Shelley Winters as Elvis’ momma Gladys needed a deft hand to counter her boxing glove performance. Gladys was an uncomplicated woman, the type more dazzled by an artificial Christmas tree than the real thing. If the current Elvis arouses questions of incest, this version instead evokes a telekinetic connection between mother and son.

Hubley and Russell met on the set and wed shortly thereafter. That may account for the amount of screentime she’s afforded. The problem with Priscilla is the problem with Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood: Both characters are endowed with what crossword puzzle writers would call “a quality of no importance.” They’re pretty ciphers along for the ride, women who add little more than “Va-Va-Va-Voom” to the discussion. Rumor has it Priscilla Presley was paid $50,000 to fact check the script before shooting commenced. With Priscilla weilding a blue pencil, what chance did Carpenter have of bathing Presley in Prince of Darkness hues? Still, thin as it may be, this is about as complex a portrait of Priscilla Presley we’re likely to see in our lifetime: there is actually a scene with Priscilla in which Elvis does not appear. (She’s in Graceland, practicing ballet moves.) Elvis’ future bride was in high school when they first met. The criminal age difference between the two is delicately brushed under the carpet via a phone call between Elvis and his future father-in-law.

A feet-to-face pan up (aka the Frankenstein shot) introduces us to Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle). Tom Hanks’ culpable upside-down light bulb mit der sqveaky voice is nowhere to be found. Parker outlived Presley by 20 years. Speculation for dramatic purpose would only end in litigation. Speaking of lawsuits, the eternal irascibility of Little Richard probably led him to turn down a cameo stand-in, let alone a personal appearance. Men hated Elvis for the effect he had on their women, but it was okay to send the Mrs. to see the effeminate LR. Don’t kid yourself: had Little Richard been born a straight white dude, we’d all be saying “Elvis who?” He’s the true King of Rock ‘n roll, and his absence in this story is made up for by the inclusion of three cover versions of LR’s hits. (Ronnie McDowell dubbed all of the Presley vocals.)

Russell’s connection to Presely is well-documented. (Google my review of It Happened at the World’s Fair.) He had been a movie star for decades before assuming the cape and giant aviator frames to play Presley, and his performance extends far beyond mimicry. On rare occasions the film does manage to rise above average, and when it does, make sure your remote is near. (A jam session of “Suspicious Minds,” recorded in Elvis’ living room demanded an instant replay.) The film doesn’t reach a dramatic conclusion so much as it ends in a concert replete with flashbacks to Elvis’s past. Elvis feared that he wouldn’t make it to 40, that he’d be gunned down like Martin Luther King or one of the Kennedys. He was terrified that he’d end his career singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at oldies shows. And that’s the tune that poignantly plays underneath the closing credits.

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Elvis: Gladys (Shelley Winters) and son (Kurt Russell).
Elvis: Gladys (Shelley Winters) and son (Kurt Russell).

The competition was stiff on February 11, 1979, the night John Carpenter’s Elvis debuted on ABC. Gone With the Wind was on CBS and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was on NBC; both kneeled to the King, both in the Nielsen ratings and in my living room.

Elvis (1979)

It’s not that I was particularly eager to see an Elvis biopic, particularly one produced by America’s oldest teenager and professional sugar-coater, Dick Clark. My horse in the race was director John Carpenter, fresh off the phenomenal success of Halloween. Fans like me were eager to see how Carpenter would handle his first script shorn of action, monsters, and/or aliens — although a convincing argument can be made for Presley as an other-worldly formation. These many years later, curious to see how it compared to Baz Luhrmann’s latest incarnation, I tracked down the Shout Factory! blu-ray, which runs 18 minutes longer than the original airing. Shot in 35mm soft matte — a shortened version screened in Europe — this is the first time Elvis has been presented in its theatrical ratio of 1.78:1. Bigger and wider doesn’t necessarily mean better, however, and while the new version gave Carpenter ample time to show off his characteristic sidelong pans — a shot of a young Elvis running against the wind, leaves blowing in his face, could have been an outtake from Halloween — the overall product proved a typically dead-ahead TV movie that demanded attention for no other reason than this: it marked the first of many collaborations between the director and star Kurt Russell.

It’s 1969: Elvis’s first public appearance after almost 10 years of seclusion. He’s being whisked into the International Hotel just moments before his father Vernon (Bing Russell, Kurt’s pop) buckles to a ransom demand of $50,000 to prevent the psycho on the other end of the phone from killing his boy. If the film’s limited budget were a reflection of the number of anachronisms housed within, this would have held its premiere in dime stores across America. That’s a decidedly late-‘70s-looking John Carpenter lighting a cigarette at the gaming table. Priscilla’s (Season Hubley, then Kurt’s wife) hair is all wrong, far too soft and bouncy when compared to the Aquinet construction helmet that topped the real-life Mrs. Presley. A flashback drops us in the only 1956 guitar store in the world that had a lobby standee from Fritz the Cat adorning its wall. The RCA logo on the Heartbreak Hotel gold record looks a tad ‘70s in style. And if Love Me Tender was released in 1956, why does the film’s director, presumably Robert D. Webb, appear to have spent the night in the disco-inspired Men’s Department of Montgomery Wards?

The ghost of Jesse Garon Presley, the King’s twin brother who died in childbirth, haunts every Elvis biography, but seldom evokes the feelings of emptiness the director and star bring here. The shadowplay dialogue exchange between Elvis and his lost other half show that Carpenter was up to the task — but Dick Clark, and to a certain degree screenwriter Anthony Lawrence, weren’t aiming for art. Lawrence had three features to his credit, all mid-period Elvis outings: Roustabout, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and Easy Come, Easy Go. In this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt: Clark would have none of that, nor does it produce much in the way of finding fresh ways of covering the stale truths. (Presley died two years before the film aired, and there’s no mention of drugs.) And the sand-on-the-tracks performance by a blubbering Shelley Winters as Elvis’ momma Gladys needed a deft hand to counter her boxing glove performance. Gladys was an uncomplicated woman, the type more dazzled by an artificial Christmas tree than the real thing. If the current Elvis arouses questions of incest, this version instead evokes a telekinetic connection between mother and son.

Hubley and Russell met on the set and wed shortly thereafter. That may account for the amount of screentime she’s afforded. The problem with Priscilla is the problem with Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood: Both characters are endowed with what crossword puzzle writers would call “a quality of no importance.” They’re pretty ciphers along for the ride, women who add little more than “Va-Va-Va-Voom” to the discussion. Rumor has it Priscilla Presley was paid $50,000 to fact check the script before shooting commenced. With Priscilla weilding a blue pencil, what chance did Carpenter have of bathing Presley in Prince of Darkness hues? Still, thin as it may be, this is about as complex a portrait of Priscilla Presley we’re likely to see in our lifetime: there is actually a scene with Priscilla in which Elvis does not appear. (She’s in Graceland, practicing ballet moves.) Elvis’ future bride was in high school when they first met. The criminal age difference between the two is delicately brushed under the carpet via a phone call between Elvis and his future father-in-law.

A feet-to-face pan up (aka the Frankenstein shot) introduces us to Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle). Tom Hanks’ culpable upside-down light bulb mit der sqveaky voice is nowhere to be found. Parker outlived Presley by 20 years. Speculation for dramatic purpose would only end in litigation. Speaking of lawsuits, the eternal irascibility of Little Richard probably led him to turn down a cameo stand-in, let alone a personal appearance. Men hated Elvis for the effect he had on their women, but it was okay to send the Mrs. to see the effeminate LR. Don’t kid yourself: had Little Richard been born a straight white dude, we’d all be saying “Elvis who?” He’s the true King of Rock ‘n roll, and his absence in this story is made up for by the inclusion of three cover versions of LR’s hits. (Ronnie McDowell dubbed all of the Presley vocals.)

Russell’s connection to Presely is well-documented. (Google my review of It Happened at the World’s Fair.) He had been a movie star for decades before assuming the cape and giant aviator frames to play Presley, and his performance extends far beyond mimicry. On rare occasions the film does manage to rise above average, and when it does, make sure your remote is near. (A jam session of “Suspicious Minds,” recorded in Elvis’ living room demanded an instant replay.) The film doesn’t reach a dramatic conclusion so much as it ends in a concert replete with flashbacks to Elvis’s past. Elvis feared that he wouldn’t make it to 40, that he’d be gunned down like Martin Luther King or one of the Kennedys. He was terrified that he’d end his career singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at oldies shows. And that’s the tune that poignantly plays underneath the closing credits.

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