Elvis (1979)

Director: John Carpenter
Writer: Anthony Lawrence
Cast: Kurt RussellRonnie McDowell, Shelley Winters, Bing Russell, Robert Gray, Season Hubley, Pat Hingle, Melody Anderson, Ed Begley Jr., James Canning, Charles Cyphers
Seen on: 22.5.2016
[During the Carpenter retrospective, they did show Elvis as well, but unfortunately, they were only able to get a print of the German version that was cut from a length of 160 minutes down to a sleek 100 minutes. And since Maynard does own the DVD with the entire film in English, we decided to do a private screening instead – so that’s the version I saw.]

Elvis (Kurt Russell, with Ronnie McDowell singing) dreams of becoming a musician. Born in poor circumstances and without connections, he doesn’t stand that much of a chance. But when he goes to record a song for his mother (Shelley Winters), the studio is impressed by his voice, hearing the gospel background he comes from (and that comes without him being black). From there, his rise is quick and very high, but it does come with its dark sides as well.

The film was made only very shortly after Elvis’ death and it shows in its unfiltered adoration of Elvis that doesn’t really dare to go near the darker chapters of his biography – like the drug use. That means that the film becomes overly sweet and remains oddly flat in places. Nevertheless it wins with the amazing performance by Kurt Russell and Ronnie McDowell’s great singing.


I think that the people making this film were interest in showing Elvis as a flawed human being. So they acknowledge that he had rage issues and an incredibly Oedipal relationship with his mother. But at the same time they obviously admired him so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to risk actually portraying him as something other than the BEST. [At least that’s my theory.]

The resulting compromise repeats the same two flaws over and over again, without actually exploring them in-depth and lets everything else to sparkle in Elvis’ awesomeness, leaving me with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Especially since it wasn’t that long ago that I saw the Elvis musical where there was even less of an attempt to portray him as anything other than a god on earth and that, too, decided it would simply quit before he got any problems with drugs.

elvis-1979-1But it’s not only the flaws that are repeated without furthering his character development, there is also the way Elvis’ (still-born) twin is included in the story: with Elvis talking to his own shadow quite a bit. After the second time this happens, it just feels like an overeager decision to make sure that the audience gets how clever they were.

Since the film runs in circles a lot, the length of 160 minutes does feel too long (although I shudder to think how they could have cut an entire hour from it – that must have ended in destruction). You could conceivably do an Elvis movie that was even longer – but then you’d have to stop handling the character Elvis like a porcelain doll that is to be revered and treat him like an actual human being. [And maybe for once, actually make the racism that made his career possible, part of the discussion instead of a sidenote in his creation myth.] I wish that was the film we had seen, keeping Kurt Russell who really blew me away with his performance. It was not to be, but maybe we’ll be luckier next time.

elvis-1979-2Summarizing: If you’re into Elvis at all, you definitely have to see it, and if it is only for Russell’s performance.

5 thoughts on “Elvis (1979)

  1. it’s not just your theory ;) regarding even longer Elvis movies, have you seen the two-part-tv-series [btw, I hate that word so much I can’t even describe it] with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers? I haven’t, I have it at home for idk 10 years now, but well, it would be interesting in how far it has the same problems (I somehow I assume it has more than just those) …

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