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A Second Glance: ‘Elvis: The Movie’

Popular culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything, and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance. In this edition, we look at John Carpenter’s Elvis: The Movie.

Last Time on ‘A Second Glance’: Thor (1991)

John Carpenter is one of the greatest living filmmakers. His genre-bending work in sci-fi and horror has influenced numerous writers and filmmakers. But even this living legend has lesser-known corners of his filmography. One such forgotten film is 1979’s Elvis, starring Kurt Russell.

The Plot

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The film opens in Las Vegas, the year 1969. Legendary musician Elvis Presley prepares to go onstage for the first time in years.  Tensions are high as Presley deals with fear of failure and anxiety over a recent death threat. His thoughts drift back to when he was a teenager. He was raised poor and dreamed of becoming an entertainer.

The story follows Elvis’ early years and his meteoric rise to fame. It covers his movie career, his marriage to Priscilla Wagner, and the death of his mother. The film culminates with the concert, his triumphant comeback tinged with bittersweet regret.

More Narrative, Fewer Facts

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Life is terribly uncinematic and this fact is the downfall of many biopics. John Carpenter opts to not let facts get in the way of good story. The Elvis Presley of this movie is a tragic character, not unlike Charles Foster Kane. The movie makes no mention of his drug habit, his weight gain, or his affair with Ann-Margret.

Carpenter crafts an Elvis Presley who is generous to a fault. He wants love and adoration and to make the people happy.  The film’s Elvis is no angel but his bad moments are a result of stress. This stress is brought on by failing to be everything for everyone. Even when Elvis flips and fires his band or breaks a paparazzo’s camera, he immediately feels regret and tries to make amends. This sounds like a detriment to the film but it’s actually a boon.

The narrative of a legend looking back on his life as he prepares for a big comeback is a great set-up. It really is no wonder that James Mangold’s Walk the Line borrowed the framework and set-pieces from Elvis.

The King Himself

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This movie would sink or swim on the strength of its titular performance. Fortunately, Kurt Russell is more than up to the challenge of being Elvis Presley. Russell picks up on more than a few of Elvis’s mannerisms and vocal ticks. Though it clearly isn’t him singing, Russell nails Elvis’s dance moves perfectly.

The physicality that Kurt Russell brings to the role alone is worthy of accolades. But Russell also sells the big emotional beats of the story. The climactic scene where Elvis calls his daughter Lisa Marie and tells her he loves her is heartbreaking and beautiful.

Why Does Elvis: The Movie Deserve a Second Glance?

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Though it may be far afield of John Carpenter’s typical output, Elvis is a good movie. Kurt Russell gives a magnificent performance and the cinematography is wonderful. The movie is low on historical accuracy but it tells a good story and the inaccuracy is never detrimental to the film’s entertainment value. The film is nearly three hours long but is paced so well that it breezes by.

If you’re looking for a complete account of Elvis’ life then maybe look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for an enjoyable film about Elvis then this is the movie to see.  Shout Factory recently released a brand new Blu-Ray edition of Elvis.


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