Kurt Russell’s ‘Elvis’ TV movie gets Blu-ray reissue
In the 1963 film “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” 11-year-old Kurt Russell, in his unbilled film debut, plays a brat who kicks Elvis Presley in the shins.
Sixteen years later, Russell kicked the tires of the Elvis myth, so to speak, when he portrayed the late King of Rock and Roll in “Elvis,” an ABC madefor-tv movie (released theatrically in Europe) that marked the first teaming of Russell and director John Carpenter, a collaboration — the duo followed “Elvis” with “Escape from New York,” “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China” — that is as epochal for younger film buffs as the union of John Ford and John Wayne was for their cinephile elders.
Respectful, unpretentious and characteristically elegant (for Carpenter), if somewhat ungainly in its substitution of California real estate for Memphis and Mississippi locations, the modestly budgeted “Elvis” remains the definitive screen portrayal of Presley (at least until the arrival of the TV series “Million Dollar Quartet” or the realization of the Elvis projects planned by such creators as Mick Jagger and Craig Brewer). The movie was a ratings blockbuster when it premiered Feb. 11, 1979, beating “Gone With the Wind” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” on the two opposing commercial networks, but in succeeding years it has been anything but ubiquitous, in part because Dick Clark Productions keeps a firm hand on its properties and in part because its 148-minute length is somewhat unwieldy for cable TV programmers.
This month, “Elvis” got a new lease on life. On Aug. 16, which marked the 39th anniversary of the singer’s death, “Elvis” made its Bluray debut as an inaugural title in the Shout! Factory label’s new “Shout Select” line of “hand-picked” titles, which will range from “acknowledged classics to cult favorites to unheralded gems.” The other “Shout Select” titles released this month are “Collector’s Editions” of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (1984) and “Midnight Run” (1988). (Shout! Factory previously had issued “Elvis” on DVD, in 2010.)
In a vintage promotional featurette that is one of the bonus features on the Blu-ray (recycled from the DVD), Carpenter — coming to “Elvis” a year after the breakout success of “Halloween” — describes the biopic as “a personal film, because I love Elvis a lot.” The director defines Elvis as “a human being” who “became mythical.” The same could be said of Michael Myers, the killer protagonist of “Halloween.” “Elvis,” like “Halloween,” is in part a psychological study with a hint of the supernatural, as the somewhat guilt-ridden Elvis communes with his shadow self, his dead twin, Jesse Garon Presley, an insubstantial yet inescapable presence represented by the singer’s shadow on the wall.
Such storytelling wasn’t entirely appreciated by Elvis associates. “Number one, Elvis didn’t sit and talk to his stillborn twin — they got that crap from Geller (Larry Geller, Elvis’ hairstylist) because he’s into what I call California cult crap,” longtime Elvis friend Marty Lacker (who still lives in Memphis, and is credited as an “additional consultant” on the film) told The Commercial Appeal in 2010. “And Kurt Russell, who’s a good actor, they had him portray Elvis as the saddest person in the world, and he wasn’t. Our nickname for him was ‘Crazy,’ for his crazy sense of humor.” (In fact, Elvis is called “crazy” in the movie, but it’s an insult, hurled by a Tupelo bully when the boy Presley is talking to Jesse Garon while taking flowers to the twin’s humble grave.)
Objections aside, “Elvis” clearly was conceived as a sympathetic corrective to the tabloid-abetted image of Presley as a sweaty, bloated, jumpsuited selfparody that was prevalent (not without reason) in the years before the singer’s death, and that continues to dog his legacy. It’s remarkable that Carpenter’s film debuted only 18 months after Presley’s shocking death at 42, at a time when the stations of the Elvis cross — the impoverished childhood in Tupelo, the Humes High School talent show, the truck driver’s audition at Sun, the meeting with Col. Tom Parker, the stint in the Army, the bad beach movies, the marriage to Priscilla and so on — were not entirely familiar, and when such definitive resources as the Peter Guralnick two-volume biography were years away. (Even Albert Goldman’s scathing best-seller “Elvis” didn’t arrive until 1981.)
Compared to the demonstrative, excitable style of today’s commercial biopics, the episodic “Elvis” feels subdued, almost “arty” — closer to Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” than to “Ray” or to the James Brown movie, “Get On Up.” After all the success and fame, “I still feel like there’s something missing,” Presley muses at one point, and that might be the Elvis character’s mantra.
Supporting characters go missing, too. Perhaps for legal reasons, the movie never even mentions Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis or other Elvis contemporaries, but it does bring in the likes of actor Nick Adams (Dennis Christopher), Natalie Wood (Abi Young), Red West (Robert Gray), Marion Keisker (Ellen Travolta) and, of course, Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle), Sam Phillips (Charles Cyphers), Priscilla (Season Hubley, who married Russell a month after “Elvis” debuted), and Elvis’ parents, Vernon (Kurt’s father, Bing Russell, who is excellent) and Gladys (Shelley Winters, who in the Blu-ray featurette reports that Elvis and Natalie Wood used to cuddle on the white chair and ottoman in her Hollywood home and “neck”).
The cast MVP, however, is unseen singer Ronnie Mcdowell, who provides the Elvis vocals that Russell lip-syncs. Mcdowell is so effective that the absence of actual Elvis recordings is hardly missed, and the music performances are generous: “That’s All Right,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Suspicious Minds,” and so on. But if Russell can’t sing, he’s a convincing and energetic onstage wiggler, whether at the Grand Ole Opry or at the International Hotel. (The movie begins and ends in 1969, with Elvis’ triumphant Las Vegas comeback, so the “fat Elvis” and the unglamorous circumstances of Elvis’ death are nonfactors.)
“Restored from the original film elements,” according to Shout! Factory publicity, the “Elvis” Bluray retails for $27.99 (but is available at a much lower price from most sources). For more information, visit shoutfactory.com.
the marriage of elvis (Kurt russell) and Priscilla (season hubley) is recreated in John Carpenter’s “elvis.”
the 1979 movie “elvis” makes its Blu-ray debut this month.