Baz Luhrmann’s new, hyperactive Elvis biopic is but the latest attempt to depict Elvis Aaron Presley on screen since his death in 1977 at age 42. Not counting documentaries, which are legion, Presley’s life and legend have been fodder for at least a dozen films and miniseries over the years. In most, though, he’s deployed purely as a figure of fantasy – in 1988’s Heartbreak Hotel, 1992’s Death Becomes Her, 1993’s True Romance, and 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep – or granted a walk-on in someone else’s story – in 1989’s Great Balls of Fire!, 1994’s Forrest Gump, and 2005’s Walk the Line.
When Presley is the center of attention, filmmakers have either narrowed their focus – his Vegas years for the 1981 TV movie Elvis and the Beauty Queen, his 1970 meeting with Richard Nixon for the 1997 TV movie Elvis Meets Nixon and 2016’s Elvis & Nixon – or chosen the soup-to-nuts approach. This is the case with the Colonel Tom Parker-approved docudrama This Is Elvis from 1981, the 2005 Elvis miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Luhrmann’s maximalist extravaganza, which is told from Parker’s point of view. The one that beat them all to the sequined punch, however, is 1979’s Elvis, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell in his breakout role – one that led to an Emmy nomination for his performance and four more collaborations between them.
Before Elvis came along, Russell was best known for the string of live-action Disney films he starred in from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s. (This is echoed by the early career of Luhrmann’s Elvis, Austin Butler, who logged time on various Nickelodeon, ABC Family, and Disney Channel sitcoms.) Carpenter’s track record was nowhere near as long, but he had Halloween and the TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! – both released in the fall of 1978 to success and acclaim – in the can when he accepted the directing assignment.
Working from a teleplay by producer Anthony Lawrence, who has previously co-written three of the King’s ’60s films, Carpenter and Russell hit the ground running, pulling off the complicated shoot in 30 days. Apart from a handful of scenes of Elvis as a boy (getting his first guitar, visiting the grave of his twin brother, Jesse Garon, being called a “mama’s boy” by a bully), Russell convincingly portrays Elvis from high school, where he emphatically doesn’t fit in, to Las Vegas, where he isn’t sure he wants to. “I ain’t no Andy Williams, man,” Elvis moans, but with so much riding on his first live performance in close to a decade, he has plenty of reasons to be nervous – including death threats – and cause to shoot out the television in his hotel suite. This is the event the whole film circles back to, marking his 1969 debut at the International Hotel as one of many turning points in his career.
In the space of two-and-a-half hours, Elvis covers the major milestones in Presley’s life, from his first public performance at a high school talent show (encouraged by his first serious girlfriend) to cutting his first record at Sun for Sam Phillips (Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers) to his band’s disappointing audition at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Feeling the sting of rejection, Elvis petulantly breaks his guitar backstage (fade out, go to commercial), but it’s not long after that the film introduces Pat Hingle’s Colonel, whose efforts to take his new act national put stress on Elvis’s relationship with the most important person in his life: his mother Gladys (Shelley Winters, all maternal love and concern).
What matters most in Carpenter’s Elvis is his personal relationships, not just with Gladys (who he’s constantly trying to please by buying her things, including Graceland), but also his father Vernon (played by Russell’s real-life father Bing), his best friend Red (Robert Gray) and the rest of the “Memphis Mafia,” and, of course, the second love of his life, Priscilla (Season Hubley), who comes into it not long after Gladys leaves it. (Hubley, meanwhile, married Russell one month after the film’s premiere.) Once the Colonel sets Elvis on the road to superstardom, he effectively fades into the background, making the deals that keep his meal ticket in Hollywood throughout the ’60s, churning out frothy musical after frothy musical when what he really wants to do is get up in front of audiences again.
While Luhrmann’s film goes into detail about the Colonel’s machinations that prevented Presley from going on tour and seeing the world – and kept him in residency at the International long after it was clear that was a death trap – Carpenter and Lawrence let Russell’s Elvis go out on a note of triumph, not as the bloated, drug-addicted nostalgia act he would become, but as a vibrant, electric performer in his prime. A mere 18 months after his untimely death, that is assuredly the Elvis his fans wanted to remember.
“Elvis” isn’t on any streaming services, but it can be purchased from Shout Factory.