In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
Well, I’m so lonely,
I’ll be so lonely, I could die…
The made-for-TV Elvis Presley biopic Elvis was first broadcast as a three-hour ABC Sunday Night Movie on February 11, 1979, the day Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. It got exceptional ratings. Executive-produced by American Bandstand host Dick Clark, Elvis had been conceived in the midst of the mania that followed the singer’s death in 1977. Several directors had passed on the project before it was offered to John Carpenter, a long-haired film-school dropout whose most prominent release to date was Assault On Precinct 13, an obscure grindhouse action flick well-liked by European critics. Halloween, the low-budget horror classic that would transform Carpenter into an above-the-title name, didn’t hit theaters until Elvis was halfway through filming, and then in a release so under-the-radar that, to this day, no one is sure when or where it first played in many major cities. It would become a hit through word-of-mouth.
Elvis has a unique place in Carpenter’s career. It was one of two TV movies he made around the pivotal moment of Halloween, the other being Someone’s Watching Me!, a thriller produced for NBC that starred Adrienne Barbeau, who married Carpenter soon after. Elvis marked the first time that Carpenter worked with Kurt Russell, the former child star and minor league baseball player who was cast as Presley. They would go on to make four more films together: Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China, and Escape From L.A., all of which star Russell as a variation on the tough-as-nails pulp hero. Besides being his longest film (150 minutes without commercials), Elvis represents Carpenter’s only attempt at straightforward drama, and is often characterized a work-for-hire project that the director took on because he, like so many of his generation, had grown up on Elvis. Even then, it often seems to be on the verge of turning into a horror film.
Elvis hits an unusual sweet spot between fairy tale, nightmare, and hack biopic. Anthony Lawrence’s sanitized script is ripe for parody (it’s one of the main reference points for the spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), its dialogue a non-stop barrage of exposition and foreshadowing in which everyone is always addressing the singer by name. (“Elvis, you know we can’t afford no fifty-five dollars for no bicycle!”) But though the swagger Russell would bring to his later starring roles for Carpenter wouldn’t be out of place in a movie about The King Of Rock ’N’ Roll, he plays Elvis as deeply vulnerable. There is never a point at which he doesn’t look like an outsider; whether as a young man with a ducktail haircut and silk shirt, or as a grown man who regularly wears a cape and sunglasses indoors, he always seems dressed for another world.
Almost the entire first hour of Elvis is set before his rise to stardom, and Carpenter’s direction zeroes in on experiences of bullying and humiliation. These are contrasted with almost mythopoeic images of nature; young Elvis runs home before a storm through grayish backwoods, and daydreams with a high school girlfriend by a lake straight out of a storybook. Though broadcast in the 4x3 standard of the period, Elvis was framed for cropping into widescreen, which is how it was subsequently released to theaters abroad, and how it’s presented now. Carpenter and cinematographer Donald M. Morgan, who would go on to shoot Christine and Starman for the director, make bold use of both static shots and long takes that are transformed midway through by a sudden camera movement.
Sometimes, it’s for the sake of economy; when Presley first brings his parents (Shelley Winters and Bing Russell, Russell’s real-life father) to his famous mansion, Graceland, the scene is presented as a single shot in the foyer, before they exit and the camera pans and zooms to frame a workman hanging a gold record on the wall. But the effect tends to be expressive and ominous. One of the first shots of the movie frames Presley’s entourage as they hurry down the hallway of a casino hotel, enclosed within a tunnel of red wallpaper and carpeting—an image as irrationally sinister as anything in the work of David Lynch, another Elvis fan. Elvis is constantly framing characters through doorways, down hallways, within pointedly empty spaces, or, especially, against their own shadows.
Is at odds with itself? It’s not as though Carpenter’s creepy sense of the visual space contradicts anything in Lawrence’s nostalgic-act script, even if said script is notable for leaving out much of the darkness of Presley’s life. It begins and ends on July 31, 1970, the first show of Presley’s first Las Vegas residency, at the International Hotel, now the Westgate Resort & Casino. Elvis’ version of the King often brings to mind a sad momma’s boy space alien, who doesn’t so much die as become a celestial being; in the end, he is seen readying backstage to the sound of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Presley’s real-life entrance music of choice. (As with many things related to 2001 director Stanley Kubrick, this has led to all sorts of kooky conspiracy theories, mostly about Kubrick’s obsession with bathrooms and toilets and the fact that Presley died in his bathroom.)
Carpenter and the cast take Elvis’ clean-cut, addiction-free hagiography at face value, but add shades and layers. There is the little-known Robert Gray’s sensitive turn as Presley’s close friend and bodyguard Red West; if you didn’t know better, you’d think he were nursing an unrequited crush on the star. There is Winters’ reading of “But this is our house today?”, asked of a man who has come to evict the Presleys from the public housing. There is the mournful way in which the chorus of “Heartbreak Hotel” (“I’ll be so lonely, I could die…”) lands on a shot of workmen closing the gates of Graceland, still under construction. And there is, of course, Elvis’ long shadow, cast on the wall at pivotal moments. The movie identifies with his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, a figure of mythic importance in Presley fandom.
Elvis’ musical numbers—in which Elvis’ singing voice is provided by Ronnie McDowell, who scored a minor kitsch hit in 1977 with the unbearable tribute single “The King Is Gone”—are quite good. But the heart of the movie is in its silences, and in those moments when Elvis is alone, often framed dead center, sinking into gloom or with his clothes torn up in frustration. He is a borderline-supernatural figure, haunted by the shadow of what he’s supposed to be. Elvis treats its subject matter with the sympathy horror movies often extend to the misshapen and misunderstood.
The film’s most touching moment is one of those long takes mentioned above. To the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the camera dollies left to right, until Elvis is in profile; he is often seen in profile in the film, because it makes him seen monumental, and also because that’s the angle from which Russell looks the most convincing. The change in camera angle reveals his shadow, cast on the wood-paneled wall of a backstage phone booth. It had been there all along. He dabs away a tear and turns his head toward the wall just as the camera begins to dolly again, lining up his head perfectly with the silhouette on the wall, so that it seems to disappear or be absorbed into him. It’s a moment of magic, reminiscent of Peter Pan getting his shadow sewn back on—but also, of an eclipse.
Next guest: Spanish director José Luis Guerin’s largely wordless In The City Of Sylvia, which is either a transfixing pièce de résistance of filmmaking form or a paean to scruffy art-school guys ogling girls.