In a deleted scene in “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino via Mia Wallace says you’re either a Beatles man or an Elvis man. Up until recently, I could say I was a die hard Beatles man. However, I’ve recently come to reassess the music of the King and found myself liking a lot of it. You can't deny the guy's overwhelming influence on rock music and culture. Decades after his death, people are still obsessed with him, creating museums and extensive personal collections. Considering the huge shadow his life and career cast over American pop culture, it's sort of surprising John Carpenter's "Elvis" is only one of a few biographical films about the guy.
John Carpenter got the job of directing “Elvis” supposedly because the producer, knowing he scored his own films, figured Carpenter knew music so he must’ve known a lot about Elvis. Whither or not that’s true or makes any sense doesn’t matter. “Elvis,” a work-for-hire TV movie, is important to the Carpenter filmography for a simple reason. It was the first time the director was paired with Kurt Russell, who would go on to become not only a good friend but the director’s favorite leading man.
This, naturally, makes the movie a showcase for its lead performance. Russell is dead-on in the part. He looks a lot like Elvis and perfectly imitates the King’s mannerism without going overboard into parody. This relatable performance and a story focused on personal aspects go a long way towards humanizing an iconic figure, which was obviously the intention. The movie is also very well paced and breezes by despite nearly being three hours. It's separate clearly into three chapters and, despite "the rise again" part of the "rise-fall-rise again" cycle never being in doubt, you still care.
This is such a showcase for Kurt that the supporting cast is easily overlooked. Shelly Winters is good as Elvis’ mom, hiding a lot of insecurities under a calm demeanor. A moment of her sitting in the newly minted Graceland, conflicted about her son's rock royalty, stands out. Always underrated character actor Pat Hingle needed more to do as Col. Parker and is mostly confined to a handful of small scenes. The movie doesn’t touch on the Colonel’s corruption at all, probably the most interesting, memorable thing about him. Season Hubley, who Russell was dating at the time, underperforms as Priscilla. You don’t really understand while Elvis falls so deeply in love with her so quickly. Hubley is flat and rather unemotional. There's certainly no evidence to suggest such devotion and passion in their relationship.