Elvis (1979)

Only a handful of years after Elvis Presley’s death, director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell gave TV “Elvis,” their first of many collaborations together.  This is a very loving tribute to Elvis, apparently with the approval of his family, ending in 1969, rather than taking us to the bitter end.  We’ll leave that for the 2005 “Elvis” (and we’ll get there, I promise).  This one has Dick Clark as an executive producer, for crying out loud, so it’s pretty gosh darn bubble gummy.  It often borders on laughable idol worship, but at the time, that made sense.  In 1979, biopics were still meant to evoke warm memories.  It would take Christina Crawford to shake-up the genre, but that’s a few years in the future, so for now, settle in with a nice cup of cocoa, your favorite blanket and a cat or two.  Here is “Elvis” the way we wanted to remember him in 1979.

Okay, okay, I know.  “Bj, that sounded too simpering for a cynic like you.”  So, if you prefer, I’ll put it this way: this version of Elvis is so whitewashed, it’s as if his whole life is filmed with the Vaseline lens beloved by actresses of a certain age.  If you cant see the flaws, they aren’t there.  Extrapolate the rest yourselves, my friends.

It’s 1969, the International Hotel in Las Vegas.  Elvis (Kurt Russell) is hiding out and there are death threats against him, though his father Vernon is handling that.  He also has faithful Priscilla (Season Hubley), in whom he confides his fears that he’s gotten old and might not be able to perform like he used to.  As if Elvis isn’t worried enough, TV news is there to scare him, asking aloud if he is still able to hack it.  Elvis can’t do much about his personal feelings, but he he can shut off the TV…with a gunshot.

Being a television piece about a real-life person, the prologue inevitably leads us back to the past, to 1945 when Elvis is just a boy strumming a guitar.  Elvis’ takes flowers and candy to his stillborn twin brother’s grave.  Local kids think he’s a bu]it nuts, and he gets beaten up for it, but his mother Gladys (Shelley Winters, looking utterly ridiculous trying to hide her figure under a sweater and her hair under a wig), is very supportive.  She tells him that “they say when one twin dies, well, then, the other one grows up with all the strength and good sense of both,” before the family sits on the porch and sings hymns, in full harmony.  It’s the televised equivalent of cotton candy.

Teenage Elvis is awfully particular about his looks, primping in the school mirror while the other kids make fun of him, saying his hairdo makes him look “like a squirrel.”  As they try to chop it off, he’s saved by Red West (Robert Gray), who scares the pack off (I think it’s because Robert looks like a student who has been forced to stay behind for about 25 years).  Elvis goes out under a tree and starts singing, which attracts a crowd of worshipful girls.

“The future is in electricity,” Elvis’ father (Kurt’s real-life father Bing Russell) says right before the housing authority arrives and tells the family they are being evicted for making too much money (roughly $70 a month).  “Ain’t this family never gonna have no luck?” Shelley blubbers, literally puffing her face out to full volume to try to force tears to fall.  Elvis is determined to help the family with its financial troubles by singing.  Geez, maybe Mickey and Judy can help by putting on a show in the barn and singin’ along to raise the money!

Cute blond Bonnie (Melody Anderson) loves Elvis’ talent and wants him to do the school variety show, but he says he’s “chicken.”  However, after Red’s trumpet solo, just his sideburns could get a standing ovation.  He sings a ballad about a dead dog to the kids, with Bonnie gazing steadfastly and the rest of the girls jumping up and down at the song’s end.  “They really liked me!” a shocked Elvis says before being sent out for an encore.  Elvis loves the applause and as he and Bonnie sit talking by a lazy river, Elvis confesses the adulation, Bonnie and even the wildflowers “are making my heart go kind of funny.”  He says he wants to marry her and the two kiss in a very chaste fashion (more so as not to smear the incredible amount of make-up caked on both their faces).  Those wildflowers are hornier than these two.

After graduating, Elvis wants to sing, and his parents both support it.  Hell, even Bonnie supports him, “peculiar” though he dresses.  He hangs around music stores listening to black men singing in his spare time, waiting until he has the $4 it takes for Sun Records to let you record your own album.  Sitting in the waiting room, suspicious Marion (Ellen Travolta) keeps wanting to know which singer he sounds like, but of course we know he doesn’t actually sound like anyone.  Sun Records founder Sam Philips (Charles Cyphers) isn’t so sure, thinking Elvis’ guitar sounds like a drum.  Oh, coincidentally, Sam needs a back-up singer who sounds black “to make some blues” and when Elvis is offered the gig, he’s so excited, he forgets to hang up the phone on Marion, racing over as fast as he can.   Singing to Ronnie McDowell’s vocals, Kurt’s Elvis neither sounds nor looks black, but that’s just it, isn’t it?  Elvis was like no one else, blurring racial boundaries musically.  Except the movie isn’t brave enough to bring up the racial issue in more than a hurried sentence.

Elvis rushes off to the movies before his song is put on the radio for the first time, forcing his parents to chase him into the theater.  You see, Mrs. Presley isn’t particularly quiet (maybe she was in real life, but Shelley Winters whispers like hail on aluminum siding), and Elvis has to miss the rest of the movie to avoid the “ssshhhh” sounds from the audience.

And with his song on the radio, Elvis is a small-time hit.  The girls at the little gigs he plays go wild over his sound, his look and of course his gyrations.  As film Elvises go, Kurt Russell is as good as they get.  Having worked with Elvis as a kid, he must have studied him, because he has the moves down pat.  In a full face of Max Factor (with an umbrella to protect it from the rain), Elvis, Red and the boys go off to Nashville to audition at The Grand Ole Opry.  At first, no one can believe this kid and his back-up goofs are the ones on the record, but the sound is undeniable once he starts up.  However, the Opry isn’t interested and Elvis throws a (rather polite backstage) fit.  His effect on kids is hypnotic.  He sings and they go wild.  Hell, he curls his lip and they go wild.  Red has to pull him from the stage or the girls will tear him apart.  Just not at the Opry.

After one gig, Elvis is punched out by a male who is not an admirer and the gang hits the gas going after him (with tricked up hillbilly music making the scene play like silent movie footage), Mrs. Presley waking up just as it’s happening, knowing something is wrong (though Shelley’s look could be read as gas).  During the chase, the car overheats and the guys almost lose their luggage and instruments as the car burns.  “Those guys out there, they are always mad at me,” he tells Red, who reminds a still-naive Elvis that these punks are just jealous because their girlfriends react so strongly to him.  Elvis calls his mother, who relates her dream to him, just as it happened in real life, and then tells him Bonnie has found “another beau.”  As the sun sets and the guys are stuck at a gas station, this is one of those scenes meant to evoke tears.  I’ll be the heavy here: Bonnie wasn’t waitin’ around for Elvis forever.  She’s a young lady with needs!  Okay, back to the purity of the fantasy…

Enter the villain, or hero, or whatever people consider him from decade to decade, Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle).  Puffing on a stogie, he’s convinced to watch Elvis perform and he certainly knows a cash cow when he sees one.  “Son, in 29 years of show business, I’ve never seen anybody do what you did tonight,” he tells Elvis.  What does Elvis do with his new money?  He buys his mother a big fancy car.  “I don’t even know how to drive!” she roars, looking like she’s about to re-suffer her “Poseidon Adventure” heart attack.  He’s making $2000 a week now, and he spends it all on his mother, with the car and jewels, not to mention wigs and make-up.

Col. Parker picks the very moment when Elvis his making his mother happiest to lower the boom that he’s sold the Sun Records contract to RCA.  Sam and Marion are less upset than Elvis, because they stand to make a fortune, but Elvis feels loyal to the people who got him started.  No bitterness, just hands squeezed.  Come on, that’s not even HALF believable!  Over at RCA, Elvis records “Heartbreak Hotel,” but he has problems recording it and then collapses during a concert from exhaustion.  Hee refuses to rest because he’s doing it all for his parents.  “I’m gonna be an actor in the movies,” he tells his mother from a hospital bed.

He’s not a natural in front of the camera, slouching and basically just being the hick he is.  His parents are there to support him, but he’s more dazzled by actor Nick Adams, who has worked with his idol James Dean (or more, if you read some books).  “Mrs. Presley, the director can be replaced, Elvis can’t,” Col. Parker says when Mrs. Presley notes that the director is being tough on Elvis.  Was that a hint of sarcasm in “Elvis?”

But enough of that, it’s time for the Ed Sullivan Show.  “Remember, above the waist,” the men in the booth say as Elvis starts singing, but the audience goes hog wild.  This defining moment in 20th Century pop culture cannot ever be equalled by any imitator, and especially on a strangely cheap looking set, but Kurt’s imitation holds very solidly and the time is kept to a minimum to avoid too much comparison.

The media is rough on Elvis, calling him a “sausage” and saying his moves are vulgar, but he only wants the approval of his parents.  So, he buys them Graceland, where his mother feeds chickens on the front lawn.  “Mama decorated everything,” he shows off, telling his parents that they can invite the whole Presley clan to live there.  But, there is a “price of fame,” in that he has no privacy, so he has to buy out movie theaters or arcades for a whole night in order to just have fun with Natalie Wood and his posse.

Mrs. Presley, lording it up in Graceland, thinks Elvis should retire, just settle down and be normal.  “He could open up one of those spare rib restaurants,” she clucks after wondering if Elvis minds her weight gain.  Wait, whose dream are we living?  These two scenes together are supposed to show us that all is not perfect for Elvis Presley, but it’s done so tamely that it still seems like an ideal way to live.  And Shelley just wants ribs, admit it.

Elvis colors his hair jet black for Christmas (or to go in the Army or whatever), but his focus is still on his mother, who is now sporting enough make-up for three actresses.  She doesn’t know what to do with herself in her opulent surroundings and she is worried about the whole Army thing.  “It’s peacetime,” he tells her, then scooting off in a red silk shirt to downtown Memphis with his friends.  He watches his mother take a pill.  Uh oh.  That’s never good.

In 1958, Elvis did indeed go into the Army (if you missed that biographical point, just watch “Bye Bye Birdie”), having his hair cut for real.  He tells Col. Parker that he’s worried he’ll lose his status by not working for two years.  “You are a phenomenon!” Col. Parker tells him.  Parker has it all figured it, having stocked up on Elvis movies and songs so his fans will never notice he’s gone.  “I consider it my patriotic duty to keep you in the 90th percentile tax bracket,” he cracks to Elvis.  Mrs. Presley moves to a trailer on base to cook for her boy, but she keeps having spells.  She can’t seem to remember that Elvis has told her he’s being sent to Germany.  The scary music swells up as Shelley swoons and is taken to the hospital, though all she can think of are the lights left on in the trailer.  The movie so worships Elvis’ adoration of his mother (it’s 1979, just about the last year guys were allowed to love their mothers), but Shelley’s over-the-top performance is so difficult to digest it makes the relationship silly rather than touching.  She’s in a hospital bed done up with a wig, lashes and make-up enough to hop out of bed and run for the Emmy podium just in case, though Shelley Winters’ days of touching gold statuettes were loooooooong gone by this point.  Thankfully, after an hour and a half, we’re done with Shelley as Mrs. Presley dies from hepatitis (not offense to Mrs. Presley, who I’m sure was a lovely woman, but if the character hadn’t died, history might have needed some reinvention to bump off Shelley).

Elvis goes off to Germany, where starts that karate chopping crap as graffiti on the wall says, “Elvis Uber Alles.”  Mr. Presley wants to get married again, but Elvis is such a loyal son, he’s okay with it.  He understands his father’s loneliness.  Twenty seconds later, Priscilla walks in the room and Elvis is smitten.  Hell, she’s the only person in his life with longer eye lashes than him!  Elvis goes over to introduce himself, as if Elvis needs introduction, and the two hit it off immediately.  He sits at the piano and plays for her, just for her.  We get a montage of “nothing exists but us” footage, driving through the hills, having a picnic, swapping daffy powdered sugar dialogue.

Just because Shelley Winters has left the building doesn’t mean she took all the kitsch with her.  At a beer hall in Germany, the polka band invites Elvis up to perform, “Tutti Frutti” of all things.  In his uniform, he can still do the moves, and the whole place, from the ancient extras done up to look like Von Trapp cast-offs to the ancient extras done up to look like beer hall furniture, claps along.  Oh, but I should mention it takes a black piano player to make it all possible.  Of course it does.

Elvis returns home from the Army to cry some more about his dead mother in the bedroom that hasn’t been touched since she died.  Back in civilian clothes, which mean a lot of silk and bedazzled belts, Elvis tries to get a model airplane to work.  He goes to light a cigarette, and every member of his entourage holds up a lighter.  “Thank you very much,” he says for the first time in the movie.  What any of this has to do with anything, I can’t quite say.  We seem to be filling time before the next big event in Elvis’ life.

As he’s playing the piano with all the cheer of an undertaker, Red asks him how he feels.  “I feel alone.  I feel like a prisoner,” he complains.  “I’m sorry,” Red says with half a smile and then leaves Elvis to return to his dirges.  Now we’re going to extreme lengths to cover up Elvis’ dark moods.  What would be so wrong with a little tiny hissy fit?  Instead, Elvis just plays the piano and croons, sounding like Perry Como on a really slow day.

Elvis calls Priscilla’s father, a Captain in the Army, asking to let her come to Graceland.  They will be chaperoned.  Hell, even his grandmother (Meg Wyllie, who was playing old ladies even in 1979, nearly 25 years before her death in 2002) lives there.  Of course Elvis gets Priscilla, but only if she stays in school.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to think of you as a little girl,” he tells her as he’s dropping her off at Immaculate Conception.  “Then don’t,” she says, a little too knowingly for the kid she is.

And get this one: in his next scene, performing on stage in one of his gold sequined get-ups, he’s wearing a cross.  That’s how pure and untouched he is.  His body is still moving in ways that make the girls faint, and at the end of a song, he rips off his tie and throws it to the ladies, who rip at each other for it.  Some little girl doesn’t grab it fast enough, so he has her brought up to the stage, where he places the cross around her neck!  And the concert continues.

Want to love Elvis even more?  He has nothing but hatred for Lee Harvey Oswald when he sees him on TV.  What’s next, beatification?  Who didn’t hate Lee Harvey Oswald?  We need a scene for that?

Priscilla, still just a teenager, glides down the stairs in a gorgeous outfit, one that covers her nearly from head to toe, but Elvis is transfixed.  None of the other party guests exist for them.  “You wish they wouldn’t do that…stop everything when we come in?” he asks her.  He wants not to be special, “just go to Europe, be like a tourist and see the world.”  It’s yet another “I want to be free” speech, the umpteenth of the past thirty minutes, and Priscilla listens contently, asking only two questions.  The first comes near the onset of the quiet tirade, the Europe part, when she asks if he would take her with him.  Yes, of course, he just wants the rest of the world to go away.  And the second question?  “Do you like my hair?”  Does he ever!  He’s ga-ga for it because…sit down for this one…it’s the same color as his mother’s.  This leads into more mama-lovin’ and then he plants an open-mouthed kiss on Priscilla (but a tame open-mouthed kiss).

Elvis and Priscilla get married, but loyal Red isn’t invited to the ceremony, only the reception.  What the hell?  He’s been with Elvis since high school.  Upstart crony Joe Espito (played by a young Joe Mantegna, whose name is misspelled in the credits) gets to go, so why not Red?  I don’t even see Granny, though Mr. Presley is there.  Red is pissed as hell about it, so he waits until the whole gang is at…I hope you are still sitting…a roller skating rink to check Elvis against the wall and tel him how angry he is.  Elvis says he had no idea who was at the wedding, that Col. Parker arranged it all.

“Hold me,” Priscilla inevitably says as they are happily hugging in the garden when he’s told it’s time to zoom off to Hollywood.  As he’s grumbling his way through the shoot, Priscilla is at home practicing her ballet among the gilt-drenched surroundings.  Take your pick as to which is cheesier: Elvis complaining that the movies aren’t fun anymore while getting a pie in the face, or Priscilla twirling around the living room.

Neither scene has anything to do with the story because when Elvis returns from the shoot, it’s Priscilla who gets to moan about being lonely.  She doesn’t get any time with Elvis anymore.  Oh, right, the neglected wife bit.  That’s in every movie about a successful man, so if you didn’t expect it shame on you.  But, Elvis has a twist on it.  You see, he has to spend time with the guys for a reason.  “You see their wants.  I have to look beyond their wants and see their needs.”  You can pause and read that again.  I rewound the movie to hear it again, but trust me, it doesn’t make any more sense the second time.  If we were allowed to show anything but Elvis-as-The-Pope, we wouldn’t need to invent drama.  Literally.  Elvis goes outside with a sandwich and in order to fire the whole gang, pretends one of the guys said something about him.  You can rewind that too, but it won’t do you any good this time either.  Feeling bad a half-second later, Elvis offers the guy he fired a few hundred dollars.  Why did he fire them all?  “I don’t know, I just did.  Well go get ’em all back,” he tells an underling who was out of earshot during the trumped-up dissolution of Team Elvis.  In case you don’t understand that the past for Elvis was better than the present, he ends this section by going into the garage and looking at the now-old car he bought for his mother with his first success.

Then he screens “Rebel Without a Cause,” saying Dean’s lines about not fitting in along with him, but Priscilla interrupts his cine-karaoke session to tell him she’s pregnant.  Elvis is now into his ludicrous plumage phase, at home in satin shirts and rhinestone everything, but he’s so darn happy, he, his friends and even Priscilla sing cheery songs around the piano.  Elvis spends a fortune on the baby that isn’t even born yet, as both he and Priscilla agree that they want the baby to “have a normal life.”  How’d that turn out for ya, Lisa Marie?

Two hours and fifteen minutes into the movie, Elvis gets angry enough to smash a lamp.  “What’s happening to me?” he asks Priscilla.  The anger was about the remixing of his songs.  “It’s my music.  It ain’t theirs, it’s mine,” he whines.  Priscilla isn’t much help, telling him to call Col. Parker, because Elvis’ fears are beginning to run deeper, or at least less shallow.  “I don’t want to be 40 and up on some stage singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel,'” he tells her.  His crystal ball wasn’t too good.  He would be up there at 40 singing it, but with a whole new bag of trick!  If he knew about the Liberace outfits, maybe he wouldn’t be so scared.  He may have been drunk the whole time, but the public ate it up!

Priscilla gives birth while Elvis is in the yard doing karate moves.  Talking to his dead twin brother in the next scene, with a convenient storm raging outside, he stills feels “something is missing, you know?  Somewhere deep inside me, there’s an empty place.”  Quit the bitching!  You have a hot wife, a gorgeous baby and a great career.  I know, I’ve been asking for actual drama for over two hours, but now that we have it, it’s unintelligible and, I might add, annoying.  He just seems like a spoiled child.

He wakes Priscilla up in the middle of the night to read her some passage from a philosopher who said the dead (his brother, his mother) aren’t really dead.  “What are your running from?” she asks.  “Why did everything in my life happen the way it did…ain’t no such thing as coincidence,” he responds, not that it answers her question.  She tries to end the conversation in a very schoolmarmish manner, by telling him she would like to read the passage, at some time that isn’t the middle of the night, before she is forced to understand it all.

Hiding out in Graceland, afraid of his shadow, Elvis is upset when Priscilla asks to bring a friend to the house.  She wants her own friends.  Makes sense.  “I can’t live in a bubble…I want to have my own friends, not hand-picked ones.  Having my own life will not do anything to us,” she sagely tells him.  She’s awfully smart, this Priscilla (which is proof that the real Priscilla approved this tripe).  The argument, like all of their others, doesn’t actually GO anywhere.  It just happens, in a bubble, kind of like the life she’s leading.  To either work out her frustrations or try to understand the life Elvis lives, she goes to the karate room and smacks around the bag a bit, just for a few moments before…before nothing happens.  We truly are just filling the movie with footage to meet the time requirement.

To that end, take a bathroom break while Elvis holds a jam session, complete with a black female quartet of back-up singers, more instruments on the soundtrack than are being played in the room and what seem like fits of apoplexy from Elvis, all in preparation for the Las Vegas gig.  I say send the show to Vegas as is, because the cornball factor is off the charts.  No, wait a minute, let’s take it a step further…let’s doll Elvis up in a velvet shirt and have him explain to Priscilla, who has just now been told about Vegas, about how much he needs his audience.  You mean the audience that he’s ignored for nearly a decade?  “Nobody can mess with his music,” he says.  Ah, so it’s to protect the music, not really please the people?  Priscilla, of course, sees the lapse in common sense, and starts another fight.  She feels like another old lady, like her life is slipping by, but Elvis insists on the tour.  “I love you Elvis, but if anything happens to us, I can make it without you,” strong girlfriend chirps to her man.  But, let’s temper her threat with a big hug.  Another scene lost to syrup.

Elvis really only has one person to talk to: his wall.  Or, his brother as he insists on addressing the wall.  He wishes he could talk to his mother, go back in time, redo it all, blah, blah, blah.  “If I make it in Las Vegas.  If I can just get up on that stage and feel those people one more time, just one more time…” he whispers to the wall, I mean his brother, in another stalling moment of self-created drama.  Here’s the problem about writing a movie about a problem-free Elvis: when the problems actually arise, you can’t feel sorry for the man.  Live has been damn good and he’s bitching and moaning for reasons that don’t make sense.  If we saw the warts-and-all Elvis, we would know not only was he a very insecure person, but, by this point in his life, nippin’ the bottle more than now and then.

Back in 1969 in Vegas, we pick up where we left off: Elvis shooting the TV that had melodramatically suggested this was either “the beginning or the end of a great career.”  Even The Beatles, they tell us, are passe.  But, Elvis decides to go on, tossing on a jumpsuit filled with shiny beads and buckles, defying the advice of his father and hangers-on that he does not go on.  He calls Lisa Marie, promising to “come home soon” and cries buckets as the “2001: A Space Odyssey” music cues up loudly on stage.  Pants flared, crotch barely contained, Elvis goes out and performs for the crowd.  Now, Kurt Russell in 1979 certainly looked a whole lot healthier and sexier than Elvis in 1969, but it’s understandable that this fluff would keep the thin Elvis flame alive, but more noticeable is the audience.  Elvis performed in GIANT arenas in Las Vegas, but the set here is about as big as a junior high auditorium and it seems that all of Elvis’ fans were 150 years old.  I would be willing to accept middle age, but old?  As in wheelchair-check-at-the-top-of-the-ramp old?  Come on!  We’re simply repeating extras to save costs.  Look closely and you’ll see some of those wacky Germans from the beer hall.

Anyway, Elvis tears through two songs to a frantic audience and then as he goes into “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Kurt freezes.  I say Kurt, because it’s not the film, but only Kurt, who has to stand in a frozen pose for a really uncomfortably long time as we get the also-inevitable montage of past highlights, as if we haven’t been watching the movie since the beginning.  By the end, Kurt looks like he’s going to pass out and I feel for him.  Why not just freeze the film?

It’s over.  What happened to Priscilla?  She went on to make pots of gold selling Elvis memorabilia, I guess, but the movie gives us no hint.  What happened to Col. Parker?  He stopped showing up around 1958 and never reappeared (perhaps Pat Hingle got a better gig and bolted while he could.  Red?  Mr. Presley?  The movie just leaves us hanging.  It doesn’t even give one of those “Elvis Presley died from…” title cards that biopics usually toss in before credits.  According to this movie, Elvis might actually still be performing on a stage in Vegas somewhere.

I know that by blasting apart the holes in “Elvis,” I’ve spilled the truth for legions that Elvis’ life was more substantial than his beloved marshmallow.  I know that no Elvis Fan Club will be sending me birthday presents (and let’s not even guess what the Shelley Winters Fan Club people must think of me) this year, but if you base your knowledge on Elvis on this miniseries, then go on believing he’s still alive.  That belief is as much rooted in reality as this production.  I will admit that Kurt Russell gives one hell of a performance, a towering achievement in a movie that doesn’t ask him to do anything but an imitation of The King.  I can also surmise that this movie is played on permanent loop in Priscilla’s mansion, because she’s actually the heroine somehow.  Other than that, I can only recommend any other Elvis film but this one, even one of Elvis’ actual movies, which are a heady lot.  As I promised at the start, when we get to the 2005 version, things will have much improved (and by that, I mean honesty will surface).

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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