The title of this post is all you need to know. That it’s directed by John Carpenter is secondary. He shares the credit with another guy anyway, so who knows where each of their contributions lie. The real reason to see it is Kurt. And at a clocked three hour running time you better believe this is one of his lifetime performances.
It was originally made for television, so you can tell where the commercial breaks are. With the frequent fades to black, and the modest budget on display, there’s little here to suggest it would have had a very successful life in theaters. This isn’t like a scenario such as Duel, the Speilberg directed TV movie that was TV first, then theaters. But for a biopic, I think a little modesty is in order. I have to say that I grew really tired with the biopics of recent years. From Ray, to Cadillac Records, to Beyond The Sea to Walk The Line, each of these projects has so much glitz, glamor and epic downfall tied to them that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Can you imagine if you watched a biopic and it turned out to educate you about that person? That was my experience with Elvis. Granted, I didn’t know things that most Elvis fans consider basic knowledge. So for the Elvis fan looking for a deeper insight into the more insidious aspects of his character there will be a lot lacking. This is more like a tribute, because it avoids delving into his life after he became overweight as a Las Vegas lounge singing loser. It ends right before that happens. Instead what you get is a character study of a man who was very close to his mother, a fact about him I was not aware of. Further I had no idea he loved James Dean as much as he did which was a model for him during his acting career. He treated everybody with respect. There’s one scene where he feels bad because a bigger label picks him up and offers to pay his former manager a healthy sum to give up his rising star client. But his manager is totally okay with it. He just says Elvis you’re a great guy. I’ll get a lot of money are you kidding? During the first hour of the movie I actually wondered if there would be any harder conflict to the story besides the jealousy his hair stirs among his peers. I debated looking at the credits just to make sure Elvis Presley didn’t write the script.
At two hours and thirty minutes, with still no plot concerning his drug use, I began to panic. There was still a whole part of his life to tell. In retrospect I was relieved. The downfall, while usually interesting for most audiences, is for me just the boring part of the third act. I am most interested in seeing a man from a poor or middle class upbringing rise to the occasion and watch how he deals with the problems that come his way. As soon as the singer/actor/dancer/whatever starts huffing paint and losing focus of his or her goals it loses appeal for me. I just can’t relate to that (not yet, anyway).
So I’m glad this story never reaches the true finish line. And I’m glad this doesn’t go into him becoming some borderline junkie that shows him in an unfavorable light. If you’re a fan of Kurt Russell, this is essential viewing to get a sense of his range and ability. It is not an easy task of him to carry an entire movie as Elvis Presley. Any actor has to question if they have what it takes. They have to feel some doubt about whether they can do a good impression, a good imitation, or approach any likeness to the person especially if it involves singing and dancing. None of the tunes have Kurt singing. This reinforces the idea there was only one Elvis and I like that. But Kurt does bust a move, and everything about Kurt’s Elvis comes alive through his dancing and acting. From a distance, it’s an easy resemblance on the eyes.
As the years go on, there really isn’t much done to “age” Elvis or his friends and family. His best friend always looks like he’s 35, even when he’s in high school. His mother, who eventually gets gray hair, isn’t shamed into wearing old person’s make up and stretching the suspension of disbelief. She’s played by Shelley Winters in a moving performance that takes her from a mobile home to a death bed, and she plays every scene with sincerity and sensitivity. She is the film’s co-star.
This is one of the rare biopics where you can enjoy it without having a particular interest in who it’s about. It could have been Elvis, or King Tut. There’s a lot of great material here to latch onto and go for the ride. The best part is you don’t need bells and whistles to do it. Just some solid performances, a storyline that’s down to earth, and some music that’s easy on the ears.