There’s a new Elvis film coming very soon. From director Baz Luhrmann and starring Austin Butler as the King of Rock ‘n Roll, with Tom Hanks playing Colonel Tom Parker. Full admittance, I’m not a huge Elvis fan, but my older brother is and so, I grew up with Elvis’ music and films whether I liked it or not. Whilst I’m not a huge Elvis fan, I certainly appreciate him and his work. I’m actually really looking forward to seeing the new Elvis flick too. In the meantime, I thought I’d re-watch the 1979 biopic. A film I’ve not seen since I was a kid and I just wanted to see how it holds up or if it does at all.
The first thing that I do want to cover with this flick is that it was low budget and that it was originally a made for TV movie (though it did see a theatrical and very edited release outside of the US). I mean, this film was made for around $2.5 million which is under $10 million in 2022, that wouldn’t even cover Tom Hanks’ salary in the new film. Still, even with the low budget, Elvis: The Movie is a very worthy effort in telling the life story of The King.
Starting out in 1969 with Elvis (Kurt Russell) waiting to take to the stage in Las Vegas after not performing for a number of years. Elvis begins to doubt that he still has it, worried that he will be a disappointment. The film then cuts to Tupelo, Mississippi in 1945 where we see young Elvis talking to his dead twin and getting a guitar for Christmas (it was actually on his birthday in real life). Beaten up by a local bully, young Elvis decides that he wants to do something with his life and get out of Mississippi. Singing and playing the guitar is what he loves to do, so that’s what he’ll do.
From then on, the film follows Elvis at various moments throughout his life and career. His rise from a poor country bumpkin to a global megastar. With scenes featuring teenage Elvis at school being picked on because of his hair, his first recording sessions at Sun Records and his friendship with Red West (Robert Gray). Some of Elvis’ acting roles, his close relationship with and the death of his mother Gladys (Shelley Winters), signing up for the army, meeting and marrying Priscilla (Season Hubley) and ending in 1970 with Elvis’ triumphant return to the limelight after several years of not performing. So it doesn’t cover the last few years of his life before his death in 1977.
What you have here with Elvis is a very ‘by the numbers’ biopic that really doesn’t take any chances. It never delves into any of Elvis’ darker moments and even I, being someone who isn’t a big fan, knows that he wasn’t a saint. Yet that is pretty much how this film portrays him, as the golden child who never did anything wrong. It really isn’t a very deep film at all. Bearing in mind that Elvis died in August of 1977, this film went into production less than a year later and was filmed in mid to late 78, to be released in early 79. Perhaps there was a little hesitance on the filmmaker’s part as to not upset the still grieving fanbase and the Elvis Presley estate at the time by exploring some of his darker moments? This often feels like a collection of Elvis’ ‘greatest hits’ put to film over an accurate retelling of the man’s life.
Yet, even with this flick being very ‘safe’, it is still a really good and enjoyable watch. Kurt Russell is absolutely amazing as Elvis. To this day, the best performance as The King ever seen on the big or small screen. Obviously, I’ve not seen the new film yet so that could change in a few weeks. Still, Russell really is brilliant. He has the mannerisms down perfect, the voice and that Elvis swagger. The fact that Kurt Russell kind of looks like Elvis really helps too. Now, Russell didn’t do any of the singing, he just lip-synched to recordings made by Ronnie McDowell, which are really damn good. Close your eyes not knowing that you are listening to an Elvis impersonator and I think that even the biggest Elvis fans could be fooled.
The rest of the cast do really well too. Shelley Winters as Elvis’ mother is wonderful and the chemistry between her and Kurt Russell really does come across well on screen. Playing the part of Elvis’ father, Vernon, is Bing Russell… yup, Kurt Russell’s real father. So obviously their chemistry is perfect, a father and son playing a father and son. Pat Hingle plays Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker and this is what I mean about this film being very ‘safe’ because there is none of Parker’s shady life in this film at all. Again, I’m not a huge Elvis fan, but I’ve heard the stories of how Colonel Tom Parker exploited Elvis and perhaps mismanaged and pushed him too far. Of course, Parker was the man who took Elvis from small-time performer in Tupelo, Mississippi and turned him into a global phenomenon but he was still a bit ‘dodgy’ as a person and there’s none of that in this film.
The rest of the cast do their bit as the friends of Elvis with Robert Gray paying Red West, Elvis’ closest friend and he does a fine job. Season Hubley as Priscilla Presley is good too, even if she doesn’t come into the film until about halfway through and really isn’t used as much as perhaps she should’ve been. Elvis was directed by the legend that is John Carpenter. Now famed for his sci-fi and horror films. In fact, Carpenter landed this job after directing the classic horror film, Halloween. This was also the first time that John Carpenter and Kurt Russell worked together. This sparked a long, fruitful friendship and collaborative working relationship between the two.
For a low budget TV movie that this is, it is certainly far better than you’d expect it to be though. Really great performances throughout and even if the film never really gets very deep or delves into some of the more ‘personal’ aspects of the whole Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker relationship, it is still very much worth seeking out for a watch. Oh yeah, try to find the full version too. As I said earlier, this film was edited for its release outside of the US. I remember a cut of the film that starts just before the death of Gladys Presley. This version cuts out everything before her death too, Elvis growing up, going to school, his first song recording, and the wonderful chemistry between Kurt Russell and Shelley Winters, it’s all gone. It pretty much cuts out half of the film. In fact, this is the cut of the film I remember watching as a kid and it comes in with around an hour and a half runtime. There is another 2 hour cut too however, the full version is actually just under 3 hours and it was only when writing this review that I found the full version to watch for the first time.
This flick also missed a fantastic opportunity to do a wonderful in-joke. See, Kurt Russell’s first-ever movie acting role was actually with Elvis. It was in the film, It Happened at the World’s Fair from 1963. A then 12-year-old Kurt Russell had to kick Elvis in the shin.
They meet again later in the film and young Russell kicks Elvis in the shin again. There are scenes in this Elvis biopic that have Kurt Russell playing Elvis acting in films. Why they didn’t recreate this scene with Russell playing Elvis and some kid playing Russell kicking him as Elvis, I have no idea. It would’ve been amazing. Apparently, the two got on well on the film set too and would often throw a baseball between each other as they waited between scenes to be filmed. This isn’t Kurt Russell’s only connection to Elvis either. Aside from kicking The King in the shin (twice) and playing him in this film, Russell also played an Elvis impersonator in 3000 Miles to Graceland. A film where Russell’s character is suggested as being Elvis’ illegitimate son, he also sings Such A Night as Elvis during the credits. Kurt Russell voiced Elvis in Forrest Gump too, which starred Tom Hanks, who plays Colonel Tom Parker in the new Elvis flick.
Okay, so a bit more trivia before I end this one. Kurt Russell met with the real Vernon Presley at Graceland while making this film. Vernon was a big supporter of the flick and offered to help out in any way he could. Vernon Presley actually wanted Kurt Russell to wear some of Elvis’ real clothing for the film. Russell picked out the iconic Adonis white jumpsuit. Now, there is a slight anachronistic error here as that jumpsuit was made in 1972 and this film ends in 1970. So in reality, the suit didn’t exist when it is shown in the film. Still, that is Kurt Russell wearing Elvis’ actual famed jumpsuit on the poster for the film and in the film itself.
But yeah, Elvis: The Movie may not be perfect, it may ignore some of the more questionable aspects of Elvis’ life, his relationship with Colonel Tom Parker and so on and it may come across as being a bit too ‘safe’ as to not want to upset the fanbase/Elvis estate. But still, this is a really good film. Kurt Russell is amazing in the lead role and he is supported by some great actors too. Watch the full and uncut 3-hour version though as it really is the best version of the film out there.