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There have been many TV bios of Elvis Presley but ELVIS, THE MOVIE, the once-elusive 1979 feature starring Kurt Russell, was the first and is still the best. When Elvis died August 16 1978 at age 42, it sent shock waves around the world, comparable to the deaths of Princess Diana or Michael Jackson in later decades. A carnival atmosphere developed in Memphis as thousands of mourners gathered around the gates of Graceland and sales of Elvis’ music skyrocketed.  The 3-hour epic ELVIS THE MOVIE, produced by Dick Clark for the ABC network premiered 18 months later on February 11 1979 and, despite CBS airing GONE WITH THE WIND the same night, was one of the highest rated made-for-television movies ever shown (it played theatrically on other parts of the world – in Japan it was called THE SINGER!). The script by Antony Lawrence, who had penned two Elvis movies earlier in his career (PARADISE HAWAIIN STYLE and ROUSTABOUT  – he would also write the Liberace TV-bio ten years later), hits all the familiar milestones of Elvis’ career but glosses over most of the darker aspects. ELVIS THE MOVIE, is an upbeat portrait of a young man from Mississippi who was devoted to his mom, mournful of his stillborn twin brother, and overwhelmed by his rapid success and popularity. Though Elvis is shown having trouble dealing with the inability to have a “normal” life when he wanted to escape the spotlight, there is no mention of Elvis’ drug use, which began in the army; nor anything that touches on the other women in his life while he was married to Priscilla. The many later Elvis bio-pics focused on these sordid aspects of his life, but ELVIS THE MOVIE is more respectful. The story also ends in 1969, so we don’t get to see Russell tackle the startling physical decline we associate with Elvis at the end of his life.

There is a lot of singing in ELVIS THE MOVIE and Russell’s performance, especially in these musical numbers, is terrific. He clearly studied the King and his is a dedicated turn, not just an impersonation. When Kurt Russell made his movie debut as “the kid who kicks Mike” in the 1963 Elvis Presley vehicle IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR. Russell was 12 and Elvis was 27. In 2001, Russell played an Elvis-impersonating thief in 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND and that movie there’s a scene where someone asks his character to autograph an Elvis album. The album he signs is the soundtrack to IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR. Since it would have been too expensive to dub in the actual Elvis for ELVIS THE MOVIE, Russell’s singing voice was supplied by Ronnie McDowell, a country singer who had just recorded his first hit; The King is Dead, about Elvis. McDowell had a couple more country hits and made something of a second career dubbing his uncanny Elvis voice into TV movies about the King (ELVIS AND THE BEAUTY QUEEN in 1981, ELVIS AND ME in 1988, ELVIS MEETS NIXON in 1987, and more). Two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters played Elvis’ mother Gladys, well-capturing her unassuming, maternal Southern personality and Bing Russell, Kurt’s real-life dad, played Elvis’ father Vernon Presley. Pat Hingle was Colonel Tom Parker, and Season Hubley played Priscilla. Ms Hubley would marry Kurt Russell just after this movie first aired and would appear with him in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and also starred in HARDCORE (1979) and VICE SQUAD (1982).  ELVIS THE MOVIE was directed by none of the John Carpenter, fresh off his HALLOWEEN triumph (Elvis played a character named John Carpenter in CHANGE OF HABIT in 1969 – Destiny!). Carpenter claims he got the gig when Dick Clark learned he had composed his own score for HALLOWEEN and assumed he could handle a film loaded with music. This was the director’s first collaboration with Russell and the pair would team up four more times (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, THE THING, and ESCAPE FROM L.A.)

I was originally going to write about ELVIS THE MOVIE in my ‘Not Available of DVD’ column, but was surprised to find that Shout! Factory had released it on DVD a couple of years ago. When it was played on HBO in the mid-80s, it was cut down to 115 minutes but Shout! Factory has released the uncut 170 minute version. The full-screen transfer looks as fine as it can for a 34-year old TV movie and it comes with a couple of interesting extras. First is Bringing A Legend to Life featuring vintage interviews with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter from 1979. They are interesting to watch as we are seeing two major Hollywood players at the beginning of their careers. They talk about the story, Elvis, and what it’s like making a movie about somebody who only 2 years prior was still alive. The Audio Commentary features “The Voice of Elvis” Ronnie McDowell and Author Edie Hand who has written several books on Elvis. I guess Russell and Carpenter were busy, though they have done commentaries for their other films.

An 18-minute condensed version of ELVIS THE MOVIE on Super-8 sound film will be screened at SUPER-8 ELVIS MOVIE MADNESS at The Way Out Club in St. Louis the evening of September 4th. Several of Elvis’s greatest films in the condensed Super-8 sound format will projected on a big screen including BLUE HAWAII, TICKLE ME, ROUSTABOUT, GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, an Elvis Blooper Reel, and an episode of The Steve Allen Show featuring guests Elvis Presley and Andy Griffith (who perform together!). The non-Elvis movie we’re showing on the 4th are: PHANTOM PLANET, THE BLACK HOLE, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, The Marx Brothers in HORSE FEATHERS, Dean Martin as Matt Helm in THE SILENCERS, the animated Lenny Bruce short THANK YOU MASKED MAN, and Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in MARATHON MAN.We’ll have Elvis trivia with prizes, and, as usual, there will be lots of posters and T-Shirts and stuff given away. The Way Out Club is located at 2525 Jefferson Avenue in South St. Louis (corner of Jefferson and Gravois). Admission is $3




  1. DJX

    August 23, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Although it wisely focuses on the sunnier aspects of Elvis’ life, the film does foreshadow the darkness in his later years–this is Carpenter, after all! I remember one scene in a hotel room involving a pistol that is particularly riveting. Russell delivers one of the truly great performances in TV movie history.

  2. Ace

    September 15, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    As an Elvis fan this was rife with complete and utter BS. I understand why though, he hadn’t been dead 2 years and they romanticize nearly every aspect of his life. My only complaint is they left out some really good stuff; like his hatred of his step-mother, but adored his step-brothers. His being offered the co-starring role in “A Star is Born,” with Babs Streisand, he was interested, was going to say yes, but was told NO by the idiot Colonel Parker. Imagine Elvis getting a boost from what would have been one of the most fascinating performances of his career. It would have saved his life as he wouldn’t have died from boredom.

    This movie needed a villain and Col. Parker should have been exposed, but its understandable again as he was still alive and lawsuit happy.
    Still Russell is perfect, Shelly Winters is awesome… A great love letter to one of the best humans ever…

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