Emergency Mythmaking: John Carpenter’s ELVIS

18 months after Presley’s ignominious death, a 1979 TV movie scrambled to restore the legend.

On June 21st, 1977, Elvis Presley performed two of his last few concerts in Omaha, Nebraska, and Rapid City, South Dakota. These two shows were videotaped for TV, planned as the latest in a successful string of concert films and televised performances that kept the jumpsuited, middle-aged King of Rock and Roll in the spotlight for the first half of the '70s. And that's just how he wanted it: After nearly a decade spent making schlocky movies instead of performing onstage, Elvis was reinvigorated by his famous 1968 TV special. The next year he ditched the acting career for good and recommitted himself to live performances with a string of concerts in Las Vegas. In the studio, he spent the next several years finding himself again musically, abandoning the empty noise of his film soundtracks and embracing more country-inspired, thoughtful tunes. (For all the jumpsuit-wearing, karate-chopping nonsense, “Suspicious Minds” and “Moody Blue” are as good as anything he ever recorded.) As his personal life went south - a divorce, prescription drug addiction and the continued, constrictive control over his career by "Colonel" Tom Parker all seemed to wear him down - performing new and old material on stage seemed to be the only thing that made him happy.

Six weeks after taping the concerts, Elvis died suddenly at his home in Memphis. He was 42. For a pop culture icon, his career was relatively brief. (Madonna’s career has outlasted Elvis’ by a decade; most boy bands of the '90s have at this point had longer careers than Presley’s.) His period of actual relevance was even more brief, but its significance was massive and permanent. John Lennon said unequivocally, “If there hadn't been an Elvis, there wouldn't have been a Beatles." Bruce Springsteen described his influence as "like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody's ear, and somehow we all dreamed it." Elvis’ arrival was a flashpoint, and though the birth of rock cannot in reality be laid at the feet of one, Presley was anointed as its king. However he may have squandered that kingdom, his death was one of the biggest news stories of the century, felt by everyone from casual fans to lifelong devotees. As President Jimmy Carter stated at the time, “Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself.”

Then, two months after Presley died, CBS aired the special they'd recorded in July.

Sweating profusely, his skin pale and waxy, Elvis Presley is clearly unwell as he struggles through his catalog of hits. Riddled with diabetes and glaucoma, his body full of who knows how many chemicals, the Elvis in CBS' special was a wobbly echo of the electrifying performer who just 21 years earlier had changed pop music forever. To this day, the Elvis Presley estate has refused to release the program on home video (though clips have featured elsewhere, and bootlegs of the entire broadcast can be found online). And yet, these unflattering, unsavory images were the last the music world would receive of its living King. It was an ugly way to say goodbye, and it set the stage for the burgeoning supermarket tabloid market to begin feasting on the carcass. Reports flew about Elvis’ drug addiction (200 prescriptions!), his catastrophic eating habits (he weighed 260 pounds!) and his final hours (face down in the bathroom shag carpet!). It was open season on Elvis’ corpse, regicide after the fact.

In the late '70s, there was no On Demand, hardly any cable TV and effectively no home video. You were not free to relive your favorite moments of entertainment at the click of a button. So that unfortunate CBS concert special lingered as the King’s final farewell. And for a fandom that could already barely accept their idol’s death (conspiracy stories of Elvis’ faked death sprouted up with a quickness), it was too much to bear. In what felt like a response from the cultural consciousness itself, the following year Dick Clark Productions mounted an ambitious project - a biographical TV-movie tracing Elvis Presley’s rise to stardom. It would show his humble beginnings as poor white trash from “Squirrel Town” in Tupelo, Mississippi. It would show his awkward teen years, where his long hair and predilection for “colored” clothes made him a target of bullies. It would show his discovery at Sun Studio by Sam Phillips, his record-shattering musical career and his many personal victories in the face of adversity and personal tragedy. It would end with his triumphant return to the stage in 1970. It would not show his unseemly weight gain, or his struggles with substance abuse, and it would not show him dying on a goddamn toilet. It would air just 18 months after Elvis died, and it would restore the King to his people.

Director John Carpenter, fresh off the success of Halloween (his musical prowess in that film is allegedly what got him the gig here), is infamous for being unsentimental and to the point. But in interviews for this project - one that he claimed “every director in town had turned down” - Carpenter relayed an uncharacteristically personal reason for doing the film: “I’m bringing a lot of my own feelings to it, and how I feel about him...it’s a personal film, because I’ve always loved Elvis and I’ve always been a fan...I care about his character and I care about his story.” Speaking on the project 35 years later, “I loved Elvis Presley” is still Carpenter’s stated reason for doing the TV project. That attitude is bleeding through every frame. This is a film made by people who love Elvis, and are on a shared, emergency mission to rescue him from the spot where history had dropped him off.

Carpenter’s leading man had his own connection to the King. Kurt Russell’s first film appearance was opposite a 27-year-old Elvis Presley in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair. Young Russell wasn’t a particularly big Elvis fan at the time, but was happy to play a boy who kicks the star in the shin, launching Russell's career as a child actor. 15 years later, here was Elvis giving 27-year-old Russell’s career another boost. In his first real role as an adult, Russell gives a killer performance, finding the sweet spot between impersonation and insight. Russell’s Elvis is not a warts-and-all portrayal but something closer to, say, Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Christ in King of Kings: as relatable as a symbolic idol on a pedestal can be. But it’s a performance that perfectly serves the project’s mission of “legacy triage,” of fixing the nation’s psychic memory of Elvis. By delivering a layered, sympathetic portrayal of Elvis, Russell effectively shed his “child actor” skin and began a long career (and a long association with director Carpenter) as one of our most reliable, versatile stars.

Elvis seeks to ride a line between mythologizing and reminding folks - chastising them, maybe - that Elvis was a human being. Elvis’ stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon - rendered in practically biblical terms elsewhere - plays into both myth and reality. Elvis’ mother (Shelley Winters), heartbroken on arrival over her lost baby, lends a mournful, sympathetic tone to the early family scenes. As Elvis’ success grows, Mama Presley offers that the onstage energy that gets her son in hot water comes from the fact that he’s carrying the lifeforce of two people inside him. Later in the film, Elvis addresses his shadow on the wall as Jesse Garon, talking to his spectral sibling about his doubts and fears.

Elvis’ rise is portrayed as being tumultuous and bumpy, but the filmmakers are printing the legend, and any and all of Elvis’ struggles have an undercurrent of nobility to them, painted in broad strokes. The death of Elvis’ mother does not cause him to turn to pills and food and to sleepwalk through 31 movies; her death breaks his heart and sends him on a spiritual journey. His courtship of 14-year-old Priscilla (Season Hubley) is not weird and questionable, but has a charming, Southern gentleman quality to it. When he smashes up a room and terrifies his pregnant wife, it’s not because of substances or an unchecked ego surrounded by yes men; it’s because “they’re messin’ with my SONGS,” and putting Elvis’ background singers too low in the mix. The only real finger-pointing is aimed at fame, and at a world too eager to take everything that matters from Elvis’ personal life. There’s drama, but it never digs too deep. The wounds are still too fresh, and Elvis is handling its subject with extra care.

The film ends with Elvis onstage, caught in a faux freeze-frame, as if the entire production is refusing to acknowledge the terrible end that lay ahead for its subject. It’s a dignified, if forced, farewell designed to wash away memories of the ugly tabloid circus from the previous year. Let’s end it here, the film seems to beg. Let’s course correct the reality and replace it with this memory, this avatar, this reassuring half-truth. The myth is restored.