These Are Elvis Movies

With Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ looming, we look back at a suspiciously long catalog of Elvis bio-pics

Most musical stars only rate one biopic. In the wake of Bohemian Rhapsody, Sweet Dreams, Behind the Candelabra, Ray, and Amadeus, it’s unlikely there will ever be another film about Queen, Patsy Cline, Liberace, Ray Charles, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But Elvis, as always, is an exception to the rule — unsurprisingly, as there are so many different aspects of his personality to explore.

Perhaps it’s also because each film is trying crack the secret of who Elvis really was. After the 1950s, Presley gave few interviews, and never wrote a memoir (though just about everyone who knew him well did). So his core, central self remains a mystery, one that screenwriters never tire of probing. As we approach the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (at least the fourth film/series with that title), here’s a selection of the King’s previous cinematic representations.

Elvis (1979, dir. John Carpenter)

Released just two years after the King’s death, this made-for-TV film features a strong performance by Kurt Russell that captures the vulnerability and insecurity that lay behind Presley’s outer swagger, though the story stops in 1970, thus avoiding having to deal with his decline. Country singer Ronnie McDowell, who’d scored a hit with the tribute single “The King is Dead,” provides Presley’s singing voice (as he would for two subsequent Elvis bio pics). It was the first of many successful collaborations between Russell and director Carpenter. Trivia: Russell appears as a young tyke in the 1963 Elvis movie It Happened at the World’s Fair, kicking Presley in the shin. Charlie Hodge, a member of Presley’s Memphis Mafia entourage, plays himself in the film. Screenwriter Anthony Lawrence wrote three of Presley’s 1960s movies.

This Is Elvis (1981, dir. Malcolm Leo, Andrew Solt)

This film is a hybrid, a docu-drama that mixes archive footage together with reenactments, resulting in no less than four actors playing Elvis at different stages of his life. Paul Boensch III as the boyhood Elvis and David Scott as the teen Elvis have the most to do (and the most dialogue), with Dana MacKay as the adult Elvis and Johnny Harra as the 1977 Elvis filling in the gaps (not to mention Ral Donner, the omniscient Elvis narrator). The reenactments can be a bit hokey, but the wealth of archive footage, especially in the extended edition, makes it worthwhile; there’s an overall energy that makes it more engaging than the 2018 Elvis doc The Searcher.

Note that the theatrical version features an embarrassing live rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” that they cut from the extended version. And the film’s beginning takes you up to Graceland’s second floor, which is still off limits to the public. Trivia: Joe Esposito, one of the Memphis Mafia, plays himself in the film, and Linda Thompson, Elvis’ primary girlfriend in the 1970s, provides her own narration. The role of producer Sam Phillips is played by his son, Knox Phillips. And Presley’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker (an honorary title), always hustling for a buck, snags a credit as “Technical Advisor.”

Elvis and the Beauty Queen (1981, dir. Gus Trikonis)

This made-for-TV film covers the latter days of Elvis’ career, as seen through the eyes of girlfriend Linda Thompson, focusing on the man, not the performer. Don Johnson’s Elvis is something of a caricature (the real Elvis didn’t wear his jumpsuits around the house), a bit smarmy as he pushes drugs on his beloved, and his lip-syncing is a bit shaky. Stephanie Zambalist’s Linda quickly establishes that she’s no pushover, meaning the two are at odds from the beginning and never seem to have much fun together. Too bad there wasn’t a film based on Thompson’s later memoir, A Little Thing Called Life. Trivia: The credit “Cameo appearance by Ruta Lee” will prompt an immediate google search (she appeared in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).

Heartbreak Hotel (1988, dir. Chris Columbus)

An unexpectedly heartwarming fable about Presley’s ability to heal a broken family. Set in Ohio in 1972, a teenaged Johnny Wolfe (Charlie Schlatter) is so anxious to help his struggling single mother (Tuesday Weld) he kidnaps Elvis (David Keith) after a concert and brings him home to cheer her up. Before you know it, Presley has spruced up the family’s faltering hotel, beaten up mom’s abusive boyfriend (a reliably creepy Chris Mulkey), and helped secure Johnny a date and a spot in the school’s talent show. What a guy! Trivia: Weld co-starred with Elvis in Wild in the Country (1961).

Elvis and Me (1988, dir. Larry Peerce)

This made for TV film was based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir (she’s also one of the executive producers). Due to her first-hand experience, Elvis (Dale Midkiff) emerges as a more complex character than in other bio pics, proving to be as domineering and manipulative with Priscilla (Susan Walters) as his manager was with him — not to mention his possessiveness, jealousy, and hair-trigger temper. It’s less a love story than a depressing tale about a dysfunctional relationship based on a mutual infatuation that dissipated once the more mature of the two (that would be Priscilla) grows up.

Elvis (1990, various directors)

It’s a shame that this underrated TV series, co-produced by Priscilla and Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling, was so short lived, for it’s an excellent depiction of Elvis’ pre-fame era. Michael St. Gerard, who’d already played Elvis in Great Balls of Fire and Heart of Dixie and would later play him in an episode of Quantum Leap, is perfect as the young king-in-waiting, whose shy, nervous exterior hides the steely determination underneath. Unfortunately they canceled the show was  after ten episodes; editing those and the three unaired episodes into a mini-series called Elvis: The Early Years. Trivia: Millie Perkins, who plays Presley’s mother Gladys, was another of Elvis’ Wild in the Country co-stars.

Elvis and The Colonel: The Untold Story (1993, dir. William A. Graham)

Presley might get top billing, but it’s Parker’s story all the way in this made-for-TV film. Beau Bridges is appropriately shifty as the conniving colonel, manipulating his charge into the army, a series of lousy movies, and marriage, though Rob Youngblood’s Elvis is perhaps more hapless than the real life version. It’s the first time the Presley/Parker relationship is presented as a folie à deux, and the only film to touch on the lawsuit against Parker that followed Presley’s death. In a surreal touch, Presley narrates the story from beyond the grave and makes a spooky appearance at the end.

Elvis Meets Nixon (1997, dir. Allan Arkush) vs. Elvis & Nixon (2016, dir. Liza Johnson)

Elvis deciding one day that he wanted to meet the president, and succeeding in doing so in less than 24 hours, was indeed one of the most bizarre events in his life. Elvis Meets Nixon (Rick Peters as Elvis, Bob Gunton as Nixon) takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the story, creating a mockumentary that sticks relatively closely to the facts while dropping in fun cameos (Graham Nash, Wayne Newton, Tony Curtis). Elvis & Nixon (a desiccated Michael Shannon as Elvis, a gravelly-voiced Kevin Spacey as Nixon) is dull enough that it has to invent fake drama by having Nixon initially turn down the proposed meeting, before being persuaded otherwise by daughter Julie. A subplot focuses on Elvis’ relationship with Jerry Schilling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also one of the film’s co-producers. Trivia: Elvis & Nixon was rated R “for some language.”

Elvis (2005, dir. James Steven Sadwith)

This earnest mini-series, released with the endorsement of the Elvis estate, strives for a greater authenticity than other bio pics, showing Elvis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actor) caught up in drugs by the early 1960s, and brushing off his father’s concerns that he risks going to jail by dallying with an underage Priscilla with a breezy “She might be worth it, daddy.” But it’s ultimately a sad story, with Elvis shown as losing control of his career the moment he signs his devil’s pact with Parker (an ingratiatingly smooth Randy Quaid). The story ends in 1968; despite the success of that year’s “comeback” TV special, Elvis remains stymied, unable to spring himself from the trap his life has become. Trivia: Red West, one of the Memphis Mafia, is played by Red’s son, John Boyd West.

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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