In a filmography otherwise made up exclusively of horror, science-fiction, and action movies, John Carpenter’s 1979 made-for-TV biopic Elvis looks a little out of place. And while Elvis might be tough to pick out as a Carpenter film in a blind taste test—it lacks monsters or a pulsing synth score—it’s easy to sense a daring director behind the scenes. Where most TV movies of the era, or any era, settled for simple setups and simpler execution, Carpenter directs Elvis with a restless camera and a surprising amount of dramatic restraint. A scene set in Germany during Elvis’ army stint captures some graffiti reading “Elvis Über Alles,” but for all the world-conquering Carpenter depicts, his film never loses the fragile man at the center of it all. The performance scenes—with vocals by country star Ronnie McDowell—have an electric energy, but moments like Elvis talking to his mother (Shelley Winters) about her inability to comprehend her newfound wealth after a lifetime of poverty make the deepest impression.
It helps that Carpenter cast an actor willing to commit fully to Elvisdom. Coming off a successful career as the young star of Disney movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Superdad, Kurt Russell throws himself into the part with eerie abandon, capturing Elvis’ familiar mannerisms, but also a lot of darkness and discontent beneath the genial hillbilly-cat exterior. The film kicked off a string of Carpenter/Russell collaborations and gave Russell some nuances he’d call upon for the rest of his career: He played an Elvis impersonator in the dreadful 3000 Miles To Graceland and provided Elvis’ voice in Forrest Gump, but more than that, traces of Elvis became the vulnerable yin to the steely John Wayne yang in Russell’s onscreen persona.
But for all Elvis has going for it, it remains unmistakably a TV biopic, hitting each expected key moment and then moving on to the next. Even at two and a half hours, it feels too compressed for its own good, and too sanitized. It’s long on the toll Elvis’ fame-induced isolation took on his marriage, but short on the pills and philandering that magnified the Presleys’ problems. It ends perfectly, however. On the verge of his Vegas comeback, Russell’s increasingly paranoid Elvis starts to fear he’ll be assassinated, and considers giving up the concert dates and going back to the daughter who misses him. Then the intro music swells, the crowd roars, he swallows his fear of death, and he takes the stage, making the choice that will seal his fate.
Key features: A chatty commentary from McDowell and Elvis cousin Edie Hand, plus footage from American Bandstand’s “Elvis Day.”