Primarily notable for being the first collaboration between director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell, Elvis arrived on TV only a few years after Elvis Presley’s early, somewhat ignoble death at 42. A Dick Clark production through and through, Elvis is given multiple opportunities to shine, but despite the MVP efforts of the Emmy-nominated Russell, the man never fully emerges from behind the myth. It’s ironic that the biopic chooses to open with a reenactment of Presley’s legendary, pistol-cocking reaction to an unflattering television report, because Elvis is so firmly ensconced in the tradition of uncomplicated, televisual storytelling that it ends up deifying its subject.
Elvis, in Carpenter’s film, is many things: a devoted mama’s boy, a raw natural talent, a haunted twin brother who never got to know his other half (Jesse, who died during delivery), a musician almost too loyal for the business (as when he resists leaving Sun Records when it’s clear they can’t keep up with the rising star’s demand), a flawed but devoted husband willing to wait until his bride-to-be reaches legal age, and the man who sang “That’s All Right,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and just before he died, “Unchained Melody.” Elvis, in Carpenter’s film, is also not many things: a star who some say allowed his career to be woefully mismanaged by “The Colonel,” a white man who used (however reverentially) the black music tradition to eclipse anyone who ever influenced him, a closet reactionary who reacted with contempt at the onset of hippie-era liberalism, a hypocrite who decried the flowering drug culture of the late ‘60s even as he laid the groundwork for his premature demise through prescription drug abuse, and a fat slob who sealed the deal with one too many fried peanut butter sandwiches.
The limited emotional and historical range of screenwriter Anthony Lawrence’s portrait, which ends on the comparatively high note of the King’s kickoff in Las Vegas nearly a decade prior to Elvis’s death, is made all too apparent in those closing moments when a slow-motion shot of white-jumpsuited Elvis reaching out to his loyal fans is juxtaposed against shots from Elvis earlier in his career. There is absolutely no palpable difference between the young buck taking the stage at a high school talent show and the over-seasoned career vet who has known the taste of both success and failure. And the waistlines of both are equally trim.
Russell deserves no share of the blame for Elvis‘s shortcomings. If there’s anything pumping life into this placid hagiography, it’s his electric, cocky performance, which manages to be larger than life without spilling over into parody. (Shelly Winters, usually such a reliable glazed ham, ultimately wears out her welcome as the none-too-plussed Mama Presley.) As much as Carpenter tries to inject some spark into the proceedings vis-à-vis his trademark linear camera moves, he can’t overcome the selective and episodic framework provided by Lawrence, who admittedly (having worked with the real Presley) probably approached the project intending to fashion it as a two-part, two-hanky eulogy.
Though Elvis was presented on television sets in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Shout! Factory's "from the original film elements" transfer would seem to indicate that it was shot with theatrical presentation in mind. The 1.78:1 compositions seem generally attentive to framing, even if they're no match for virtually any other Carpenter film ever made. The elements aren't notably degraded, and if the color scheme and focus both seem somewhat hazy, and if the sound is mostly hollow for a film boasting this many musical numbers, blame TV.
Okay, I take it back. You want hagiographic? Try listening to the whole movie with the commentary track on. Ronnie McDowell, who scored a quick hit with "The King Is Gone" and provided the singing vocals for the 1979 film, and Edie Hand, Presley's cousin, boast warm, inviting Southern accents, but lawdy, Miss Clawdy, do they ever gild the lily of this movie's already saintly portrait. But Elvis fans will eat it up, and you can't fault them for filling out a 150-minute commentary track without much in the way of pauses. Rounding out the package are a vintage making-of featurette and about five minutes' worth of Dick Clark hemming and hawing about Presley (and the Beatles) on American Bandstand.
Kurt Russell straddles the line between boy and man nicely in his energetic performance at the center of Elvis. Unfortunately, the center does not hold and the movie around him is a shambles.