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Kurt Russell was "Elvis" ... first


Nowadays, it seems anyone with easy access to Velcro sideburns and a karaoke machine is busy making a living (of a sort) out of playing Elvis Aaron Presley.
After all, Mojo Nixon was right: Elvis is everywhere.

But retrospective credit is definitely due director John Carpenter and dick clark productions for getting there fastest, and first: Even before the autopsy was cold, they were readying their own Elvis for his home screen resurrection during prime time in February 1979.

The vehicle? An ambitious, yet quite reverent (especially in view of subsequent bio-pics) made-for-TV motion picture starring Kurt Russell in that title role of a lifetime. And to watch this particular Elvis again today, newly available from the fine folk over at Shout! Factory, is to be reminded just how larger-than-life The King had already become as the ’70s ended and the deification was only about to begin.

Indeed, the original, uncut Elvis tele-film, now packaged alongside some revelatory bonus footage, makes for a surprisingly entertaining — and sometimes even thought-provoking — two hours of music, mayhem and, as is often hinted, pure madness. Yes, it’s the story of a simple man blessed with unusual talents and drive who, armed only with his wits and a $12 guitar, aspired to little more than moving his beloved parents out of the Memphis, Tenn., projects and into a comparatively better life.

Of course, what transpired over the next 10 years, Presley in even his wildest adolescent dreams could hardly have imagined.

Under Carpenter’s direction, this still-improbable tale is told with an unusual eye for detail and a true sense of middle-1950s America, with its music and its morals struggling to break free. More remarkable still, Elvis succeeds in conveying just how one most unlikely young man came to embody this entire socio-musical upheaval, and how it eventually swallowed and, yes, broke him.

Pedigree is present as well, as the cast of Elvis features two actual Memphis Mafia members, Larry Geller and Charlie Hodge. Much screen time as well is devoted to the Presley of Sun Records, where during the years 1954-55, he and his raw-diamond accompanists Scotty Moore and Bill Black just so happened to change the course of musical history under the ever-watchful ears of producer Sam Phillips. This is a key era of Presley’s development that is much too often ignored for flashier and/or seemlier events in most retrospective recreations of the man, cinematic and otherwise.

Keen observers also will spot Ed Begley Jr. in the role of Presley’s first drummer, D.J. Fontana. Interesting as well to see the role of Presley’s long-suffering daddy, Vernon, played by Russell’s real-life father, Bing (!), and to realize within weeks of the ABC-TV premier of Elvis, Russell up and married Season Hubley, who portrayed his on-screen wife, Priscilla Presley! And keeping things as familial-y dysfunctional as possible, the great Shelley Winters is brilliantly cast as Presley’s closer-than-close mother, Gladys, a role she plays throughout Elvis with all her usual devotion and gusto entirely intact.

But it is truly the 27-year-old Russell who excels throughout, more than ably filling gigantic shoes and faltering only occasionally during some of the key musical numbers. He portrays the King with a respect and, believe it or not, sly subtlety that has been sorrowfully lacking in most every subsequent way-over-the-top Presley portrayal.

To be truthful, I was personally surprised at just how well Elvis stands up musically, historically and purely cinematically, amidst the three decades – and insurmountable flood of Presley “tributes” – that have followed. So then I do suggest you watch it today, and watch it often (followed, if you dare, with Allan Arkush‘s Elvis Meets Nixon, to pick the story up where Carpenter and Russell leave off).

Then, of course, pull out all the old RCA and especially Sun tracks that you can, and marvel anew at the real thing as well, don’t forget.

Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.