Wow! Hard to believe that the very youthful-looking Kurt Russell was just two years away from "Escape From New York" and three years away from "The Thing" when he made this TV movie.
I saw this TV movie when it was first broadcast in 1979 but hadn't seen it since. In the intervening years I moved to Memphis (by coincidence, not design), visited Graceland several times as a tourist, met oodles of people who knew or were closely associated with Elvis, spoke several times with some of his then-living family members, spent a couple of years driving fanatical Elvis fans around Memphis in tour buses, and generally have "absorbed" Elvis into my life's orbit about as closely as a non-fanatical non-insider can. In other words, I view Elvis the man and ELVIS the cultural phenomenon with considerable warmth and respect.
So with that pair of eyes I finally got to see the "Elvis" TV movie again, this time with a beautifully cleaned-up DVD print. Five stars! The movie is fun, informative, and covers a lot of ground in its nearly three hour running time. No, it doesn't cover every aspect or event of his life. This isn't a comprehensive documentary as is not meant to be. Rather, it is a loving portrait of a young boy from Mississippi who was devoted to his mom, mournful of his stillborn twin brother, ridiculed and occasionally tormented as a young man for being a little different, simultaneously delighted by and overwhelmed by his rapid success and popularity, lonely after the death of his mother, having great difficulty dealing with the inability to have a "normal" life when he wanted to escape the fishbowl, occasionally paranoid, and quite often scared and insecure.
In other words, we get a complex human portrait of the "spectacularly successful yet still very flawed" Elvis instead of just the "unequaled, unparalleled cultural myth on a pedestal" Elvis.
And Kurt Russell is superb in his performance, no question about it.
Having lived in Memphis long enough to have seen Elvis' old haunts, schools, residences, etc, it gave me a bit of a chuckle to see what substituted for those locations in the movie. Graceland in the movie looks very little like the real Graceland, and the same for Sun Records, Humes High School, Lauderdale Courts housing projects, etc. Not that I expected the film to be shot at the actual locations, mind you. It's just a movie, remember? But for us local folk it was good for a few giggles.
So why was director John Carpenter, known up until then for horror and sci-fi, selected to helm this project? I don't know for sure, but I suspect it was because Carpenter proved with his now-classic 1978 movie "Halloween" and earlier projects that he could deliver a good result on a very low budget, and "Elvis" sure looks like it was shot on a shoestring budget. Others have reported that Carpenter was hired because the producers thought he would be good at handling a TV movie about music given that he had composed his own score for "Halloween".
Watch this movie to see a very young Joe Mantegna and Ed Begley, Jr. Mantegna's name is misspelled in the opening credits as "Mategna".
Some of Elvis' real-life associates play themselves in this film, including Charlie Hodge and some singers and musicians.
The commentary track isn't must-hear but it is worth a listen --- very interesting trivia and anecdotes.