Predictably, a TV movie dramatizing Elvis Presley’s eventful life emerged not long after the King’s August 1977 death. In February 1979, ABC broadcast Elvis, starring former Disney child star Kurt Russell and directed by, of all people, John Carpenter, whose breakthrough film Halloween (1978) had been completed but not yet released at the time he shot this gun-for-hire project. A sanitized overview of the title character’s life through 1969, when Presley completed a major comeback by returning to the live concert stage, Elvis doesn’t reveal much that casual fans don’t already know about the subject matter—Elvis was sweet on his mama, Gladys (Shelley Winters); he fell hard for a young woman named Priscilla (Season Hubley); and he gave his manager, Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle), too much leeway—but the story unfolds smoothly.
Key events depicted onscreen include Elvis’ childhood fixation on his stillborn twin brother, the singer’s excitement at scoring his first recording contract, Elvis’ bumpy transition to acting, and the King’s descent into isolation and paranoia once he reached unimaginable heights of fame. Because this project treats Presley’s image gingerly, there’s no Fat Elvis excess, and a scene of the King shooting a television is about as deep as the filmmakers go into depicting Presley’s eccentricities. Despite its homogenized vibe, the movie boasts an energetic, Emmy-nominated performance by Russell, whose boyish persona captures young Elvis’ aw-shucks appeal. That Russell mostly overcomes the distraction of the dark eyeliner he wears throughout the picture—as well as the inevitable problems of imitating Elvis’ iconic sneerin’-and-struttin’ persona—speaks well to the sincerity of his work.
Acquitting himself fairly well, Carpenter complements the project’s workmanlike storytelling with a minimalistic shooting style, and whenever he lets fly with a lengthy master shot or a slick tracking move, he does a lot to maintain the flow of his actors’ performances. Most of the time, however, one must struggle to spot signs of Carpenter’s distinctive cinematic style. That said, it’s interesting to watch Elvis and realize how quickly Carpenter and Russell locked into each other’s frequencies, because just a short time later they embarked on a great run with Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Incidentally, this project was a family affair for Russell, because his dad, Whit Russell, plays Elvis’ father, and Russell later married his onscreen bride, Hubley. (They divorced in 1983.) As for the film’s accuracy, Priscilla Presley reportedly vetted the script, which might be why Elvis often feels like a hero-overcomes-adversity hagiography with musical numbers. (Instead of the vocals from Presley’s original recordings, singer Ronnie McDowell’s voice is heard on the soundtrack whenever Russell lip-syncs.) FYI, a truncated version of Elvis was released theatrically overseas, though the original two-and-a-half-hour cut that was broadcast on ABC is still widely available.