Elvis

Movies
4 out of 5 stars
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Only two years dearly departed, Elvis Presley was the subject of an affectionate 1979 TV biopic—and naturally, the singer’s best interests loomed large. There would be no scenes of the druggy, fat Elvis (though this version, played by Kurt Russell, does shoot a hotel television dead). There would be a minimum of philandering. And the music would be front and center, as it should be.

But returning to the exhilarating Elvis—on DVD for the first time—reveals another story, this one behind the scenes. Who would have guessed that these muscular compositions and no-nonsense pacing belonged to none other than director-for-hire John Carpenter?

Carpenter was just coming off the shoot of a little film called Halloween when he was picked by ABC and producer Dick Clark to bring in the Elvis picture on budget. The Kentucky-raised Carpenter did so, and by the time his TV movie aired, the director’s slasher had become a cultural phenomenon. Still, it’s interesting to consider this moment in Carpenter’s career, when he might just as easily have become a pre-MTV legends-of-rock specialist as a horror expert. (You wonder how much of the director’s sensibility remains unseen.)

Elvis teamed Carpenter and Russell for the first time, and all their future collaborations stem from this early winner. (Where’s their commentary track?) Russell is dynamite, stalking the stage with confidence and letting in more vulnerability than the material allowed. (The breakup with Sun Records is especially moving.) True, a lot of these scenes are pure mythmaking, like when the pompadoured King introduces his fawning parents to Graceland: “How’m I ever going to take care of 23 rooms?” But schmaltz is why you watch TV movies to begin with.—Joshua Rothkopf

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