The 1979 TV movie Elvis offers the most commonly held take on Elvis Aron Presley: the poor son of Tupelo who, bereft of an inner life beyond mother worship, a love for performing, and a taste for success—each boundless and unquenchable—succeeded so completely that he lost his soul in the process. It has all the drawbacks common to the made-for-TV format, especially in its second half: rushed action, inert staging (scenes involving a toy airplane and Priscilla hitting a punching bag are so hopeless that their retention is inexplicable), characters popping in and out like restless genii, undeveloped plot points, and a sucker’s fall-back on formula: after an angry Elvis smashes a bedroom lamp, he clutches his head in his hands and wails “What’s happening to me?” That’s precisely the kind of thing that makes me want to grab the sides of my hair and run screaming out of the room, but other flaws run even deeper. Budgetary restrictions limited the concert audiences to a couple of hundred people, so that we never really see the fullest blossoming of the world that terrified and depressed the man. Key chunks of his output are omitted or glossed over, so that hit after major hit—including “Hound Dog”, for God’s sake—goes completely unmentioned. (From a purely entertainment viewpoint, there’s not nearly enough music.) The contractual stranglehold that enabled Colonel Parker to snuff out Elvis’ attempts to widen his musical and acting horizons is shifted into the hands of a few unseen, unnamed producers and, but for one quick reference, Elvis’ absorption of black music is wholly ignored. This is all by way of saying that all the things that actually made Elvis a phenomenon—something bigger and more different than most of us can even imagine—are largely ignored in favor of the ways that he was only like us.
It could have been worse. At least Elvis was made by people—most prominently John Carpenter, working on his first film after Halloween—who were clear Presley fans. In places—a simple shot of Elvis and his parents singing a gospel song on their ramshackle porch one summer night, or the scene in which Presley addresses his dead twin brother by talking to his own shadow on the wall—it’s a surprisingly evocative work. But Carpenter really captured lightning in a bottle when he cast Kurt Russell as his lead.
I first encountered Russell when I was 10 or 12 in the old Disney movie Follow Me, Boys, and in one scene the very young Russell, embarrassed by his drunken father, unleashed a blistering tirade against Fred MacMurray that absolutely gutted me. I’d never consciously gotten it before that a kid could have such strong feelings, or that those feelings could be put into words, or that those words could be pure enough, and angry enough, to spellbind and wound an adult. Most of all it was Russell’s fraught delivery that made me want to look away—it was searing, a bigger jolt of emotion than anything I’d ever feel from a James Dean performance.*
Beginning with the opening shot of Elvis sitting in a hotel room just before the first of his “comeback” concerts at a Vegas hotel in 1969, Russell’s impersonation of Presley is so exact that at times—especially when he’s wearing Elvis’ Army haircut—it’s hard to get your head around the idea that you’re not watching The King. He doesn’t settle for a mere impression, though. When Gladys Presley (Shelley Winters, in yet another of her grisly Oedipal mama roles) dies, Elvis bends over her bed sobbing, and after holding that pose a moment, Russell crashes to one knee in a way that looks not just unplanned but wholly out of control; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a physical movement by an actor that seemed more alive the first time I saw it. Russell’s taken for a lightweight in some circles because of his square ingénue features, his marriage to Goldie Hawn, or his not always stellar choices of projects, and even people who do like him are more likely to think of Snake Plissken or of Rudy Russo in Used Cars—roles which depend at least partly on a parodic appreciation of his looks. I like him plenty in those movies, too—hell, I even like him in Tombstone—but forget all that. Elvis, for all its problems, makes one thing clear: the man has chops, whenever he wants to call on them.
*After writing this I watched that scene on YouTube for the first time since I was a kid. It was like going back to a childhood home and being surprised by how small it is—the scene’s barely a minute long and what I remembered as a tirade is just a short sentence or two. Russell’s tears and quivering anger are still there, though, and still feel real.