WHEN THE KING

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - GO SEE - By John Bei­fuss

Mu­si­cal ge­nius is a trend­ing topic, in cin­e­mas if not (as I write this) on Twit­ter. Movie bi­ogra­phies that have reached the­aters in rel­a­tively quick suc­ces­sion in­clude “Get On Up” (James Brown), “I Saw the Light” (Hank Wil­liams) and “Miles Ahead” (a Miles Davis story that opens this week­end). Re­cently com­pleted films yet to ar­rive in a Mem­phis movie house in­clude “Born To Be Blue” (with Ethan Hawke as jazz trum­peter Chet Baker) and “Nina” (with Zoe Sal­dana as Nina Si­mone).

A prob­lem with many of th­ese pro­duc­tions is that ta­lent, charisma and cre­ativ­ity don’t eas­ily lend them­selves to re­pro­duc­tion or im­i­ta­tion, even when (as in the case of James Brown) much of the mu­si­cian’s ap­peal is vis­ual. Sec­ond-hand rep­re­sen­ta­tions of th­ese un­canny fig­ures and their in­ef­fa­ble gifts in­evitably seem in­ad­e­quate, even cheap.

“Elvis & Nixon” — a movie that is re­ally about Elvis, even if its ti­tle prom­ises a co-star — dodges this prob­lem, in ways that tes­tify to the smart choices of the filmmakers and to the leg­endary sta­tus of its first-named hero. By choice, the movie is es­sen­tially a com­edy, which re­duces the bur­den of be­ing “faith­ful” to the Elvis char­ac­ter. But in re­la­tion that the Elvis leg­end, faith­ful­ness is a chimera, be­cause Elvis — un­like Hank Wil­liams or Miles Davis — is so ubiq­ui­tous a pop cul­ture fig­ure that his im­age is no longer de­fined by re­al­ity. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, Elvis is Santa Claus, as in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able via a few vis­ual cues (black side­burns, gold belt) as is St. Nick (white beard, red suit).

“Elvis & Nixon” also ben­e­fits from its econ­omy. Per­haps some day an en­ter­pris­ing di­rec­tor will pro­duce a se­ri­ous Pres­ley biopic to func­tion as a movie com­ple­ment to Peter Gu­ral­nick’s de­fin­i­tive two-vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy, but “Elvis & Nixon” cov­ers just a cou­ple of days: The movie was in­spired, es­sen­tially, by a sin­gle pho­to­graph, the fa­mous hand­shake por­trait of Elvis Pres­ley and Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon that was shot in the Oval Of­fice on Dec. 21, 1970, and

that re­port­edly is the sin­gle most re­quested im­age from the U.S. Na­tional Archives.

Di­rected by Liza John­son (“Hate­ship Love­ship”) from a script cred­ited to ac­tor Joey Sa­gal, his wife, Hanala Sa­gal, and “The Princess Bride” star Cary El­wes, “Elvis & Nixon” im­me­di­ately es­tab­lishes it­self as an un­usual Elvis film by cast­ing the dis­tinc­tive-look­ing and typ­i­cally men­ac­ing Michael Shan­non as the King. Per­haps be­cause Shan­non’s fea­tures are so ec­cen­tric, Elvis is in­tro­duced with his back to the viewer, in the TV room at Grace­land (ac­tu­ally, a set in Louisiana), shoot­ing out the tele­vi­sions that bring him dis­tress­ing re­ports of Black Pan­thers and hip­pie protests in ad­di­tion to foot­ball games and re­runs of “Dr. Strangelove.”

A law en­force­ment and firearms en­thu­si­ast, Elvis trav­els to Hol­ly­wood to en­list his old buddy Jerry Schilling (Alex Pet­tyfer) in a plan to visit Pres­i­dent Nixon at the White House and of­fer his ser­vices as an un­der­cover fed­eral agent-at-large. Asks Elvis: “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t of­fer to help?” (The idea that Elvis, de­scribed here as “one of the most fa­mous men on the planet,” could go “un­der­cover” is es­sen­tial to the in­her­ent ab­sur­dity that is the source of much of the movie’s com­edy.)

As played by Pet­tyfer, Schilling is not only the hand­somest per­son in the film, he is the story’s lonely voice of san­ity — a man mo­ti­vated by gen­uine con­cern for Elvis, and en­tirely dis­in­ter­ested in ex­ploit­ing his friend­ship with the King (un­like the skirt-chas­ing “Sonny,” played by Johnny Knoxville). In fact, the movie could have been ti­tled “Elvis & Nixon & Jerry”: The project was de­vel­oped and co-pro­duced by Schilling, the for­mer Mem­phian and Elvis friend who was an eye­wit­ness to the Oval Of­fice visit, so Jerry func­tions in the story as an Every­man and the au­di­ence’s main point of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Elvis has a few sym­pa­thetic speeches in­tended to en­sure we don’t mis­take Shan­non’s per­for­mance for a car­i­ca­ture; he dis­cusses his still­born twin, and the hard­ships of celebrity. (When he puts on his Elvis guise, “I be­come a thing,” he tells Jerry. “I be­come an ob­ject. No dif­fer­ent from a bot­tle of Coke ... They never see the boy from Mem­phis.”) But the movie is most en­joy­able as a col­or­ful pe­riod piece, a spoof of fa­mous men and a satire of power; it’s even sus­pense­ful, de­spite its fore­or­dained out­come, as Nixon’s stub­born­ness threat­ens to scut­tle the meet­ing be­fore it oc­curs, Michael Shan­non por­trays Elvis Pres­ley and Kevin Spacey is Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon in a “Elvis & Nixon.” The film imag­ines what hap­pened on the strange De­cem­ber day in 1970 when two two met. de­spite the best ef­forts of White House staffers Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who pro­mote Elvis to their boss by as­sur­ing Nixon that he “loves guns, hates the Bea­tles.” (In one scene, Krogh and Chapin hold a se­cret meet­ing with Schilling and Sonny in a park­ing garage; the lo­ca­tion, with its “Deep Throat” as­so­ci­a­tions, may be in­tended to al­lude to the Water­gate scan­dal that even­tu­ally landed both Nixon aides in prison.)

Nixon is played by a hunched and (in­ten­tion­ally) awk­ward Kevin Spacey, who, like Shan­non, is very amus­ing, in part be­cause the comic con­text frees him from the need to be “con­vinc­ing.” The con­trast be­tween the ir­re­deemably square Nixon and the flam­boy­ant, al­most ex­trater­res­trial Elvis (who ar­rives at the White House packing heat at sev­eral places on his body) is one rea­son the pho­to­graph of the men shak­ing hands has be­come so iconic, but, as the movie demon­strates, the men had a lot in com­mon, too, in their iso­la­tion, celebrity and un­likely suc­cess (“You and me, we both rose from noth­ing,” Nixon tells Elvis).

In­ci­den­tally, no Elvis songs are heard in the film, but the sound­track is packed with Mem­phis mu­sic none­the­less, in­clud­ing record­ings by Sam & Dave, Ru­fus Thomas and Otis Red­ding.

“Elvis & Nixon” is ex­clu­sively at the Malco Paradiso.

STEVE DI­ETL/ BLEECKER STREET VIA AP

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