March 16, 2010
After completing production on Halloween, which had yet to make him a household name, John Carpenter moved on to direct one of his career curiosities, a massive 3 hour TV bio-pic of Elvis Presley. Produced by Dick Clark two years after the King’s death, it was a prestige project slotted for ratings, Emmys and an overseas theatrical run, not really an item suited to Carpenter’s talents. Up until this point, he had made the no-budget sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974), the violent siege film Assault on Precinct 13, and the ur-slasher Halloween. All are self-reflexive genre pieces with mordant humor, slow-burn set-pieces, and a good deal of blood. So how did he land this straight-faced gig? On the rambunctious audio commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter claims that when the suits heard he composed his own score for Halloween, they said, “he knows music, so he should know about Elvis.”
It’s as likely an explanation as any, but whether it was studio idiocy or a canny evaluation of Carpenter’s visual style, it succeeded in pairing him with Kurt Russell for the first time. One of the most entertaining actor-director duos of the last three decades (Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) it’s been near-impossible to see their debut together until Shout Factory! released the DVD last week. Russell was just emerging from his Disney child-star phase, appearing in the Western TV series The Quest(1976) with Tim Matheson along with a few scattered spots on Hawaii Five-O and the immortal tele-film Christmas Miracle in Caulfield, U.S.A (1977).
Elvis was his first big break as an adult, and he attacks the easily caricatured part with a feline physicality (his singing voice is dubbed by Ronnie McDowell). There’s little of the parodic machismo that marks his other work with Carpenter, but he nails a fatalistic kind of charisma ideal for the role. Russell’s Elvis is a split personality – absolute freedom on the stage, and morbid self-destructiveness off of it. That his stage gyrations are violent and his self-destructiveness a form of freedom, well, that just speaks to the complexity of the performance. While the script avoids the seediest aspects of Elvis’ fall (it ends at his Vegas comeback tour in ’69), it is not a simple hagiography, positing his narcissism as the cause for his divorce and a death-wish at the heart of his personality (he frequently talks to his shadow as Jessie, his twin who died at birth). Tony Williams claims this complex portrait as a parallel to Citizen Kane in his essay in The Cinema of John Carpenter anthology. Graceland acts a bit like Xanadu in cutting Elvis off from humanity, and there is a dining room scene that is a nod to the breakfast montage in Kane, but I don’t know how much explanatory power these references hold aside from underlining Carpenter’s grasp of film history.
Carpenter aids Russell’s brooding take on the role with some clever visual patterning that turns Elvis into a man beseiged. It’s set up in Elvis’ first appearance. In a series of slow tracking shots, through an ornate casino floor and down a blood-red hallway, the camera stalks its way up to his shadow. The dark outline of his head fills the room, until there is a pan to the King himself. He’s shown watching a cowboy movie on TV, his hand twitching to the gunfire on-screen. Then there’s a shot of arrows flying straight at the TV camera, and in turn right at Elvis.
The frame erupts with Elvis’ own images of martyrdom – and unable to shake them off, he takes his trigger finger and shoots the screen dead. Not that this helps. Throughout the movie he’ll predict that Lee Harvey Oswald will kill him, and becomes increasingly alienated and alone, shedding his wife Priscilla (Season Hubley), and continually firing and re-hiring his band (including the smiling Ed Begley, Jr. and Joe Mantegna). Within the context of a standard movie bio-pic, Carpenter achieves some impressive effects here, and muddies the tone considerably with the help of DP Donald Morgan (who went on to work on Christine and Starman with Carpenter), for despite the film’s longeurs, it is always darkly handsome. They are able to stretch out on the musical sequences, working the same tension-release pattern that would soon rocket Halloween into the pantheon. Morgan’s camera frames the stage in long shot, tracking slowly back and forth to set the scene, prowling as insistently as Russell. A select few insert shots are included to ratchet up the cutting speed as Elvis starts his crotch rotations, but the majority is shot from a distance, allowing Russell to command the stage as a complete physical presence. The high production values seem like something of a miracle considering Carpenter’s claim that they filmed the 3-hour behemoth (which included 16 songs, 188 speaking parts, and 150 locations) in 33 days.
With the amount of pages they had to burn through each day, there are inevitably some quality control issues. The childhood scenes are particularly cringe-inducing, with an overwhelmed kid actor (Randy Gray) over-enunciating cornball dialogue in a studio-clean backwoods shack. It’s a sequence straight out of Walk Hard. But at least Shelley Winters is there as Presley’s Mom, warm and forgiving as ever. She’s given the thankless role as the only woman Elvis ever loved, so she’s saddled with pieties and overburdened with symbolism (Elvis dyes his hair the same color). But she injects a lightness to this creaky role that is a delight to watch, especially during her jumpy little dance when Elvis gets his first song on the radio. It’s a simple gesture that immediately captures the joyful nervousness of the moment.
The film rarely reaches the richness of the opening sequences again, but it’s loaded with great musical performances, a bewilderingly large cast (also including Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker and Bing Russell (Kurt’s Dad) as Elvis’ father Vernon), and a fearless Kurt Russell at its center, tearing through the cliched script with carnivorous intensity.