Blu-ray Review: ELVIS - The John Carpenter Film

In an old Charlie Rose interview director Quentin Tarantino once claimed that the only Elvis Presley biopic that would be interesting to him would be the King of Rock and Roll walking into Sun Records in 1954 and then proceeding to change the face of music forever. A movie that covers just one day, THE defining moment of the birth of Elvis - because, he said, 'no-one's life' was interesting enough to do a full play-by-play. No, not even Elvis.

Trying to dismiss this theory some 25 years before Tarantino said it - John Carpenter's 1979 made-for-tv ABC biopic of Elvis, which hit Blu-ray in the U.K. yesterday (amazingly, it's never been on DVD before in this country and rarely available on t.v. or VHS), clocks in at nearly three hours and covers the majority of Presley's career, from his unlikely beginnings in '54 to his astounding comeback in '69.

Screened just two years after Elvis' untimely death - the rather laborious production forgets the troublesome latter period of the pop culture icon's life, ending just before the hamburger, drugs & cigarettes era of Presley - events that presumably were to recent and contentiously irksome to be detailed in a production that is a clear celebration of the cultural icon. It's a pure hagiography film if there ever was one.

Carpenter's film then is one without risk or controversy and it's easy to see why such an innocent biopic was so popular with those still mourning the loss of their hero. It was a ratings phenomenon back in the day, similar to the rapturous media attention the Michael Jackson concert movie This Is It had in the cultural make-up of 2009 and has since become a rather forgettable production over the decades. The end result is a rather disappointingly straight laced re-telling of Elvis' rise up the charts morphing into the superstar we all knew he became as each new song and sound was played for the first time, inter-cut with moments reflecting on Elvis' youth, his early friendships and social life - and not enough of anything that I found interesting at least. It's just a check list movie, like your nan getting out a family album and flickering through the happy photographs of your life and glossing over the rest. Although it does touch on his troublesome childhood (loss of a brother, trying to impress a father, never thinking he'll amount to anything... you know all the Walk Hard stuff), his frenetic rise to stardom, his passing girlfriends (though not nearly as many to be deemed an accurate re-telling), the death of his mother, the eventful marriage to Priscilla Presley (by now I began to lose interest) and then, gloriously, the comeback of the late 60's - it's always with the idea that it's a Sunday afternoon safe ride. That Elvis - although he had a few problems - was really just a well-rounded, likeable and talented guy. Undoubtedly the desire to show the 'grandma' side of Elvis weakened the potential of what could have been a far more interesting and hard-hitting biopic. The film actually opens with it's greatest sequence as an older Elvis as a gun wielding and paranoid wreck threats about a threatened assassination attempt as he readies himself to go out and perform live in Las Vegas for the first time in ten years. If only the film had then carried on from there instead of flashing back to the 50's and focusing on how he came to be. Carpenter's Elvis simplifies much and doesn't delve deeply enough to warrant the bloated running time and although it's well made for a t.v. production - for fans of John Carpenter, I guess they would be expecting more. I know I certainly was. It's a modest movie and one that's probably best left in the era it was made. The one major thing going for it though is the spirited central performance from Kurt Russell who eases himself into the showmanship of Elvis, that absurd energy and beating heart that obviously spoke to the mid 20's actor - who clearly had an infinity for The King during this time. His Elvis, whilst never particularly resembling him in the face, delicately manages to balance impersonation/mickmery with a flattering impression/shadow of the star and it's fascinating to watch evolve and then see fully formed in all it's snake hipped glory which is supported by Elvis impersonator Ronnie McDowell on the vocals. Shelley Winters (as Elvis' mother), the great Pat Hingle (as Colonel Tom Parker) and the even greater Charles Cyphers support and their work elevates the material into something that more closely resembles a feature at times. However it's got nothing on the collaborations between Russell and Carpenter that were to come, and it's more interesting to think that this is the groundwork of a legendary pairing that would go on to make several classic films together. This is actually my first viewing of Elvis and it's such a strange blip on the CV of Carpenter. His style is sometimes present (the opening especially) but it's more straight laced than I expected and his authorship is rather understated, more populist here than he has ever been in his career.


For a movie thirty years old the production values aren't obviously going to lend themselves to a highly crisp transfer. As it's the first time I've ever seen it, I can't compare the transfer to any previous versions other to say that it's highly inconsistent and scratchy at times, but better than you would expect from a low-budget production.


A fair few including an audio commentary with Elvis' singing voice Ronnie McDowell and Elvis' cousin Edie Hand that's fairly interesting, a 1979 'making of' featurette which is fascinating to see such a legendary horror director talk about a pop icon. There's also some clips from Elvis Day in '64, a photo gallery and the ability to watch the movie by song rather than scene. Elvis: The John Carpenter Film is available for the first time, completely un-edited, on Blu-ray from Monday 16th August.

Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.