Elvis, or Elvis The Movie as it was known when released in British cinemas during the autumn of 1979, is a fascinating oddity in the career of John Carpenter. It's his only biopic, indeed his only non-genre film of any kind; all of his other films contain elements of either SF, fantasy or horror. It's his only attempt to go beyond a running time of two hours. It's one of his very few films not be shot in Scope. Any of these would make it essential viewing for admirers of the director. The fact that it also contains a career-best performance from Kurt Russell can be regarded as one more reason to watch what has become a surprisingly rare film.
The film follows the story of Elvis Presley from his origins in 1935 Tupelo to his triumphant Las Vegas concerts from the end of the 1960s. It begins in 1969 Vegas as the singer, not yet the bloated wreck of his last years, is waiting to go in front of his adoring fans. We then flash back to highlights of his life which take care to omit no familiar folk-legend about the singer but don't dig very much deeper.
The decision to end the film in 1969 is presumably down to a desire to show some respect for Elvis at a time when he had only recently died. The problem is that the wrecked King effectively becomes the elephant in the room and the decision to go out on a high seems somehow patronising and a little dishonest. This kind of white-washing goes on throughout the film and it speaks of a reluctance to analyse which means that important parts of Elvis' life - his army career and his move into films - are skated over and vital incidents like the '68 Comeback Special are ignored completely. Jerry Garcia once said that the tragedy of Elvis could be summed up in a simple observation; "You work as hard as you can, give your life to your music, and you get to go from Mississippi to Las Vegas. Elvis deserved something better but the American music industry didn't have the imagination to provide it for him." Some of his harsh but compassionate realism would have improved the film no end. It's evident throughout that the superficiality is largely down to the script - which basically treats the popular stories about Elvis' career as a list of events to be ticked off - and John Carpenter's efficient but colourless direction. Compare the plodding dramatic pace here to Halloween or The Fog and you'll see how little he's putting into it.
What doesn't need any improvement however, is Kurt Russell's blazing performance in the title role. Russell has often been a good and undervalued actor - he's particularly fine in Silkwood - and this is a showcase for all of his talents, both for introspection and showmanship. He doesn't do his own singing - that's provided by the impersonator Ronnie McDowell - but the synching is excellent and the body language is perfect. At times, he's the whole show and the only reason for watching since Shelley Winters is unusually subdued and rather annoying as his mum and the rest of the supporting cast are unmemorable. An exception should be made for the reliable Pat Hingle who gets some of the monstrousness of Colonel Tom Parker, although he doesn't get much help from the script.
Despite the flaws, I would still recommend Elvis as worth watching. It's interesting to see Carpenter working in a non-genre environment, if only to see how uncomfortable he is with a format which allows little room for his genius with cinematic suspense. It's also fascinating as an example of the kind of hagiographic TV biopic which went out of fashion after the 1981 adaptation of Garson Kanin's Moviola. Most of all though, it's worth seeing for Kurt Russell who deserved every award going for a performance which has the kind of emotional truth which the film otherwise lacks.
Fremantle's new Blu-Ray disc of Elvis is a welcome release for both Presley and Carpenter completists. It's basically a port of the recent Shout Factory Region 1 DVD which sees the main feature bumped up to 1080p.
The picture is surprisingly good, especially considering the fact that this is a thirty-one year old television movie. Viewers will immediately notice a fair amount of noise and some obvious print damage and it's evident that the source used for the transfer was not in the best condition. However, I think that the level of detail more than makes up for these flaws, especially since my aged VHS copy of the film is a blurry mess. Colours are especially impressive throughout with the low-key palate sometimes jolted into life with bright use of primary tones. The film is framed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 which looks fine - one assumes that Carpenter was aware of a potential overseas theatrical release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a mixed bag. The film was made in mono, as its 1970s TV origins would indicate, and this enhanced track doesn't do much to change the original. There are occasional uses of the surround channels but the dialogue and music tend to settle around the centre. However, both are pleasantly crisp and clear.
There are a number of extra features offered in SD. The audio commentary is by Ronnie McDowell, the Elvis impersonator who provided the singing in the film, and Elvis's cousin Edie Hand. If you're interested in Presley trivia and anecdotes then this will interest you but if you're after details about the making of the film or serious analysis then you'll go begging. Neither party seems to know much about the film, offering little more than general comments about their liking for it.
The ten minute behind-the-scenes featurette is bland and unrewarding but does suggest that a commentary track from Carpenter and Russell might have been a jewel. We also get a clip from a 1964 edition of American Bandstand which celebrated "Elvis Day" and features an interviewer asking teenage girls about their feelings regarding Elvis and The Beatles - a particularly relevant question given the British Invasion - musically speaking - which took place during that year.
Finally, we get a stills gallery and a useful "Jump to a song" option.