John Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s ELVIS – DVD review

Published January 25, 2010

Two years ago I wrote an article entitled John Carpenter & Kurt Russell’s ELVIS – Where’s the DVD?, wherein I championed this nearly forgotten 1979 biopic of the King of Rock and Roll. Produced by Dick Clark two years after Presley’s tragic passing, ELVIS was the first collaboration between young director John Carpenter – hot off Halloween, the highest-grossing independent film at the time – and Disney’s teen heartthrob Kurt Russell. These two up’n-comers would, of course, later collaborate on Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape From L.A.

Russell as Presley
Premiering on ABC in February 1979, ELVIS garnered huge ratings and effusive critical praise … especially for Russell who seemed to be channeling Mr. Presley from beyond.

That same year, ELVIS was edited from three hours down to two, and released in Europe as a theatrical feature. That shorter cut was released on videotape in the early 1990s, but was soon after pulled, shelved, and placed on moratorium because of a dispute over music rights. Much bemoaning and bemusing ensued regarding when we would see it released again …

In 2005, CBS produced another Elvis biopic starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Carpenter/Russell version, despite the cooperation of the Elvis Presley Estate, and the use of Elvis’ actual recordings.

Now, finally, after years and years (and years) of waiting, I was recently contacted by the SHOUT! Factory video production house in response to my original article. They thanked me for championing the cause of getting this neglected classic re-released, sent along the news that they had acquired the rights to John Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s ELVIS and, in a joint partnership with Dick Clark Productions, were releasing the three-hour cut on DVD – street date: March 2nd, 2010.

They also sent along an advanced copy for review … some days this job doesn’t get any better.
Elvis DVD
So, was it worth the wait?

While I have a few quibbles, I must answer a resounding YES.

As an aficionado of (well-made) biopics – not to mention John Carpenter’s spooky oeuvre, and Elvis Presley himself – I’ll be the first to admit that ELVIS has been something of an obsession with me since its first airing. Its unavailability for so long only fed my mania. Six years ago I purchased a pirated DVD off of eBay, which had been transferred from that earlier videotape version. After watching it many times (I simply LOVE showing this film to the uninitiated), this two-hour edit became ingrained in me.

My first impression of the new DVD was how handsomely packaged it is: with a clear clam shell, a two-sided, full color jacket, and an 8-page booklet chronicling the production. The film itself (and this was the biggest surprise of all) is shown in its originally-shot theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. After seeing only the cropped and grainy version for the last 30 years, this was like viewing it for the first time.

Russell and Hubley
This three-hour version (actually around 170 minutes) is not without its faults. Maybe I’m too used to the shorter cut, but this version is seriously padded – I don’t think there was anything left on the cutting room floor … other than the penultimate Burning Love number from the film’s final concert, included in the 2-hour cut, but not the longer one. There are also a couple of scenes which are not only badly edited, but completely misplaced. Early in the film, young Elvis is sitting around a guitar shop, listening to some old bluesmen wail That’s All Right Mama. His girlfriend comes in, leads him outside, and tells him that his parents are looking for him because a record company has called. At this point in the movie, Elvis hasn’t even been to Sun Records. Later, after Elvis goes to Sun to record My Happiness for his mother, it is evident where this scene was supposed to be placed. Such sloppy editing can only be blamed on the original editor – the two-hour version fixes this problem and is actually pretty tight, but it is not included here. Regardless, other than a few scenes which should have either been trimmed or cut, this version is remarkably entertaining.

Russell as Elvis
Kurt Russell is SO good in this role, at times one forgets that we are not watching the real article – not bad for someone who in real life looks nothing like Elvis Presley. Season Hubley does an excellent job as Priscilla Beaulieu; though the part is underwritten, she makes the most of it, and often strongly resembles the beautiful woman she portrays. (Hubley and Russell fell in love on the set of this film, and were married a month after filming wrapped. Though they divorced four years later, they had a son together, Boston Russell, born in 1980.) Fine support is also offered by Shelley Winters as Gladys Presley, character actor Bing Russell (Kurt’s father) as Vernon Presley, Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker, Carpenter-regular Charles Cypher as Sam Phillips, Ellen Travolta (John’s sister) as Sam’s assistant Marion Keisker, Joe Mantegna as Joe Esposito, and Robert Gray as Red West. Almost 20 years later, Kurt Russell would reprise (kind of) his role as Elvis in the Kevin Costner casino caper 3000 Miles to Graceland – the film was a stinker, but it was nice to see Russell back in the sideburns and rhinestones.

Charlie Hodge and Larry Geller, both members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia, were production consultants and play themselves in the film – their presence adds much authenticity. Country singer Ronnie McDowell does a phenomenal job providing the singing for this production; he is to be credited as much as Russell and Carpenter for this film’s allure and success.

Kurt Russell as Elvis
While it seems an impossible task to try and fit Elvis Presley’s rags to riches story into a two or three hour film, this movie not only does so, but adds nuance after nuance of the charismatic-but-troubled entertainer. The story ends in 1969 as Elvis is returning to Las Vegas after years of languishing in substandard film fare. While his eventual decline and self-destruction are not dramatized, the seeds of those later problems are certainly planted. My only problem with the script is that it fudges the date of Elvis and Priscilla’s divorce by a few years – it was 1973 not 1969 – but from a storytelling point of view, this works.

Russell and Hubley
My only other quibble regards the bonus content on the new DVD. While a short-but-fascinating 1979 Making Of featurette is presented, I wish the producers had sprung for some new interviews from the director and star. Carpenter and Russell – whose commentaries on their later collaborations are extremely entertaining – have previously expressed interest in doing the same for this film, should it ever be released on DVD. Sadly, that is also not included here. There is a commentary by singer Ronnie McDowell and author Edie Hand, but it is no compensation for the exclusion of the film’s principal actor and well-learned auteur. (Listening to John Carpenter wax cinematic is nearly as entertaining as hearing Martin Scorcese do likewise – the man knows his film history.) The bonus features are rounded out by clips from Elvis Day on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand circa 1962 (understandably without any actual Elvis music), and a photo gallery of production stills.

Russell as Elvis
While I am disappointed in some of the exclusions in bonus content, and in the lazily edited original runtime, I still must enthusiastically recommend this DVD release to all who are interested in either excellent biographical pictures, Carpenter and Russell films, or anything regarding Elvis Presley. Perhaps if response to this looooooong-awaited DVD release is strong enough, in a few years we can get another DVD (ELVIS – The Definitive Cut, for which I would gladly offer my editorial assistance), with new interviews and a Carpenter and Russell commentary. Looks like I’m still not done campaigning for this film.

To SHOUT! Factory who made this happen, may I offer a sincere …

Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.

And to you still reading this long review … you’re a beautiful audience!


ELVIS can now be found on Amazon for around $10.00!