Long Live the King | Elvis at 40
Each August, I’m reminded of Elvis Presley’s sudden expiration and I find myself poring through his enormous catalogue of material and diving into the details of his Earthly existence with great fascination. No idea where this obsession came from – I was born thirteen years after he died, none of my family were fans and it’s not like he had much of an influence on my generation. Something about him struck a chord with me at an early age – whether it was the raw coolness of his early years or the lavish, overindulgent, unashamedly excessive, near-superheroic AMERICA of his infamous later years, I’ve been endlessly fascinated with the King my whole life.
Like any icon, many aspects of his life and his career are problematic in retrospect (check out Priscilla Presley’s date of birth…Yikes) but his impact, his stage presence and his general life force is unlike anything else I’ve encountered in music, especially of that time. Spend enough time with me and you will inevitably suffer through my karaoke rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds’ (one of the very best songs ever). As I grow older, his songs have a melancholic eeriness to them, like there’s an undercurrent of darkness to what appear on the surface to be very straightforward rock n’ roll pop songs.
Forty years ago this year, John Carpenter had finished shooting indie-slasher film Halloween and moved on to a very different project – a made-for-TV biopic on the life and times of the recently deceased Elvis Aaron Presley, starring Disney’s goldenboy Kurt Russell (also looking to diversify his acting credits). This remains the definitive dramatisation of Elvis and who he might have been.
Opening on a young Elvis living in poverty-stricken Tupelo running from a bully through a forest as the wind batters the trees in deathly silence – what initially seems like a peculiar casualty of a TV movie budget subsequently feels more like a directorial stamp. For something that was probably made in a hurry, you can feel Carpenter’s presence all over this thing. The film focuses heavily on Elvis’ devotion to his mother and goes as far as to suggest that he may have killed her with kindness – in a scene where he promises her even more gifts, Carpenter employs an unsettling, almost horror-movie theme that echoes Gladys’ anxiety in the face of this almost Oedipal affection from her son. Another scene that initially feels like it’s just there to pad the run-time sees Elvis’ grandmother playing a full verse of ‘Silent Night’ on the piano – as if to foreshadow Gladys’ demise.
Early in the film, Kurt Russell really just looks like a young Kurt Russell with a pompadour and you feel like it’s just something you’ll have to get used to. As the story advances and Elvis’ career takes off however, Russell gets more and more lost into the role – by the time he finally dyes his hair black early into the second act, he’s almost physically indistinguishable from the real thing – as a child watching this film, I somehow thought that Elvis was playing himself. Even though he’s miming all of the song lyrics (country singer Ronnie McDowell provides the crooning), he is channelling the King. The film employs a soliloquy tool via Elvis’ lonely thoughts to his stillborn brother Jesse Garrett by having him literally talk to his shadow – what could have been disastrous in a lesser film is given poignance, pathos and a refreshing weirdness to what could (and really should) have been a flat, boring movie of the week. Make no mistake, Kurt Russell is fucking brilliant in this and I firmly believe it to be the performance of his career.
The genius of Carpenter’s accomplishment with Elvis is how he flirts with the elephants in the room – as the film was made with the participation and approval of the Presley estate, we don’t see Presley’s full-scale descent into drug-fuelled obesity oblivion; instead the film explores all of the clear warning signs on the surface – the Colonel was pushing him too hard, his marriage to Priscilla (played brilliantly by Season Hubley) had fallen apart, he was making shitty romcom after shitty romcom and he had sunken into an abyss of depression and paranoia.
The finale of the film is centred around the opening night of Elvis’ legendary residency at the International Hotel (50 years ago this month) – a death threat on Elvis’ life has the King and his entourage on edge but he knows he has to go out there (in all his 70s jumpsuited glory) – his career, his fans and now literally his life all depend on this comeback. The death threat is probably fictitious, Elvis’ outfit and some of the setlist is from later on into the 70s and the TV movie function room doesn’t really feel as epic as what the International Hotel actually looked like, but it’s a powerful fucking scene that draws the film to a close with the best distillation of what 70s Elvis was trying to be – a force of nature that existed for his fans, if not for himself. Thank you very much.