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Featured DVD Review: Elvis

March 1st, 2010

Elvis - Buy from Amazon

Elvis is a TV Movie that was made in 1979, just two years after the death of Elvis Presley. This biopic was directed by John Carpenter, who was just wrapping up production on Halloween when he was hired for this movie. And it starred Kurt Russell, who at the time was best known for making Disney kids movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. These are not the obvious choices for making a movie like this, but sometimes odd choices can lift a movie above the ordinary.

The film begins in 1969 with Elvis's return to Vegas. He first performed there in 1956 but the concerts were a bust, as Rock'n'Roll was not what Vegas crowds were looking for. As he watches TV, he hears a newscaster talking about his upcoming concert and how his popularity has waned over the years. Worried that the newscaster might be right, Elvis does the only thing a man can be expected to do in a situation like this: he shoots the TV.

We then flashback to the formative events of his childhood. When got his first guitar (he wanted a bike), how he had a brother that was stillborn, how he was an outcast for the way he looked, what it was like growing up poor. All of these things had a deep impact on career, his love of music, his need to please, and his deep insecurities. For the next two hours or so we see his meteoric rise in the music industry from his early start making an album as a gift for his mother and how he was taught to dance by a young kid in leg braces. Sorry, wrong movie. We see all of the key events right up till we catch up to the beginning of the movie.

Well... most of the key events. The term "hagiography" is often given to biographies that are overly generous in their praise when it comes to their subject, unwilling to look at them with a critical eye. They lift their subject to the level of sainthood. This is the case here. Granted, the film was made just two years after the death of Elvis Presley, so it would have been way too soon to talk about the drugs, the weight gain, etc. Additionally, the writing is not as tight as it should be and there are times when one scene doesn't transition as well as it should into the next. This impacts the pacing. However, both the acting by Kurt Russell and the singing by Ronnie McDowell are amazing. I'm not surprised that Kurt Russell was nominated for an Emmy. The songs are just as strong. Not using the original songs might upset some fans of Elvis, but because the songs are just a little different, they feel more a part of the movie instead of something much, much bigger.

Extras on the DVD are surprisingly strong for a TV Movie that is more than 30 years old. Things start with an audio commentary track with Ronnie McDowell and Edie Hand. As I previously mentioned, the former provided the singing for the movie, while the latter is a cousin of Elvis Presley, and the two of them wrote The Genuine Elvis. They have good chemistry together and manage to carry on for the full 2 hours and 48 minutes. That's quite a feat. There is a vintage 1979 behind-the-scenes featurette. The video is a little rough, to be generous, but it is a great find. There is also a vintage clip from Elvis's appearance on American Bandstand from 1964. There's no music (probably an issue of rights) but it's still fun to watch.

The Verdict

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have teamed up to make some of my favorite movies, including The Thing, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China. It's strange that their first collaboration was a TV biopic called Elvis. It's just not the type of movie either man is remembered for today. That said, for fans of Elvis Presley this is a must see, while the audio commentary track and the two vintage clips lift the DVD to a solid purchase.

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