Monday, February 25, 2013

John Carpenter: Elvis

If you’re a fan of Elvis and like to think of him only as the hip-swayin’, Cadillac buyin’, white jumpsuit wearin’ showman, then John Carpenter’s Elvis is the Elvis biopic. There’s nothing in this movie that even hints at the darker side of Elvis’ life. Similar to the rags-to-riches story arc that is found in other Rock and Roll biopics like The Buddy Holly Story, Carpenter’s film is a hagiographic retelling of the life of one of music’s greatest performers. It’s not an overarching biopic seeing how it ends in Vegas prior to Elvis taking the stage for his big comeback (a few years prior to his downfall), and it doesn’t even come close to covering all of the aspects of Elvis’ life, but it’s satisfying and entertaining and contains a great lead performance that was the beginning of one of 1980’s most underrated actor/director collaborations.

Elvis has a pretty basic template that it’s working from: we start with Elvis’ dirt poor childhood who struggles at an early age with the death of his twin brother Jesse (shown throughout the film as a shadow on the wall haunting Elvis); he learns valuable life lessons from his mama (Shelley Winters); the film then moves forward as a teenage Elvis (Kurt Russell) gets bullied in high school for his hair and clothes; he wows the high school audience at a talent show;  and heads off on the road. The first part of the film moves with enough momentum, getting to the more recognizable parts of Elvis’ life: his rise to stardom under the tutelage of Colonel Tom Parker (Pat Hingle); meeting and marrying Priscilla (Season Hubley); and eventually ending in 1969 as he sits in his Vegas hotel room waiting to go on stage for his big comeback concert.

All of this isn’t nearly as interesting as following Elvis through until the end of his life where he became the distended, sweaty version of his former self that is so often parodied today. But this isn’t that kind of biopic, and that’s okay, the film’s long runtime (the nearly three hour film was a two-part TV movie) becomes pretty noticeable at times because the only bit of conflict that crops up is Elvis lashing out at his cronies and firing them (and then he immediately apologizes as he tries to hire them all back). Carpenter’s film is clearly interested in showing Elvis in a glowing light, so there’s no rocking the boat here. We do get some seeds of dissention in his marriage to Priscilla, but it’s primarily seen through the lens of Elvis’ drive as an entertainer (nor do we even get a mention of Priscilla’s affair with Elvis’ karate instructor Mike Stone).

Carpenter throws some nice touches that remind the viewer that TV movies from the ‘70s didn’t have to be so sedentary — his camera moves, especially in the moments with his Memphis cronies in the hallways of the Vegas hotel. I also really liked how Carpenter juxtaposes Elvis with his shadow during the moments when Elvis converses with the ghost of his twin brother Jesse. The performances are all fine, and obviously Russell is the standout here. Even though he doesn’t sing the songs himself (that is done by country music singer Ronnie McDowell), Russell has the mannerisms down; they don’t feel so much like an impression by an actor; rather, they feel natural to the character he’s playing. It just so happens that the character he’s playing is arguably the most recognizable (and aped) entertainer of all time, so there’s bound to be scrutiny over every little thing Russell does, but I think he pulls it off. The look, the walk, the rhythm of how he talks, the curled lip — it all feels effortless when we watch Russell on screen. And, yes, even though the script lets Russell down by not giving him much to do dramatically, it’s still a great performance that marked the beginning of a very fruitful relationship between Carpenter and Russell (the two would go on to make four more films together) in addition to reviving the career of Russell, whose career was floundering (as most child actors' careers do) at that point. 

Carpenter was seen as a journeyman director in Hollywood. Despite the success of his horror hit Halloween, Carpenter again felt frustrated with the Hollywood process due to his film Eyes, which became The Eyes of Laura Mars, being altered so much by the studios. That film was released a year prior to Halloween, and Carpenter had seen the changes the studio made to his script, so he decided to disassociate himself from the film and returned to television. So it seems that Elvis was just something to do in-between his two horror films Halloween and The Fog. The result: the highest rated made-for-TV movie at that time. The film was a huge success for ABC, outdrawing showings of proven, Academy Award winning films Gone with the Wind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on rival networks — something unheard of at the time.  It became one of the most watched things on television that week and garnered much success for ABC and Carpenter. Of course, the success he had with Elvis seems like peanuts compared to what he did with the $300,000 Halloween, but it helped solidify Carpenter as a solid, bankable director. Carpenter would not return to television until 1993 when his disillusionment with the Hollywood system (hey, I’m sure making a movie with Chevy Chase will do that to anyone) frustrated him to the point where he had to get away, bringing him to Showtime to do the film Body Bags. But after Elvis, he got some money to play with for his next (and definitely more ambitious) horror project, The Fog.

Elvis looks great for a TV movie (much in the way that his Someone’s Watching Me! felt very different than your average 1970’s TV movie) and boasts a great performance. Biopics are done very differently today (audiences don’t seem so bothered these days when they find out their idols were cruel, angry people or drug addicts or whatever the case may be), so it’s easy for me to look back on this film and think that it could have been much more had they really delved into Elvis’ life. But that’s not the kind of film Carpenter wanted to make (or wasn’t commissioned to make), and, yes, what we have is a whitewashing of the icon of American entertainment — there’s no denying that — but it’s an extremely entertaining, well-acted, and well-crafted whitewashing. 


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