One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 88
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley, returns to the big screen on Friday (June 24), with the wide theatrical release of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Luhrmann’s much-anticipated biopic takes an epic look the life and career of the musical icon (who died at age 42 in 1977) and his relationship with his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker, whose dodgy machinations reportedly ruled every aspect of Elvis’s professional and personal life.
A prosthetics-covered, heavily accented Tom Hanks portrays the Colonel (a completely bogus title conferred on him by Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis in the early 1960s), while Elvis is brought to hip-swiveling, velvet-voiced life by Austin Butler (who is best remembered as young Ms. Bradshaw’s love interest in 2013’s The Carrie Diaries).
Of course, there have been more than a handful of movies that chronicled the life and career of the megastar, beginning with a pair that are both named Elvis (from 1979 and 2005). Others highlight certain episodes and periods of his life (2016’s Elvis & Nixon is very interesting), while some feature fleeting appearances by the superstar (1993’s shoot ‘em up True Romance is a favorite of mine). And then there are a handful that offer wholly fictionalized portrayals of the man who would be King (2002’s wacky-as-all-get-out Bubba Ho-Tep).
With Luhrmann’s film arriving this Friday, The Insider offers you an appetizing roundup of 10 worthwhile, streamable Elvis projects that feature the Man from Memphis himself. Included are a handful of movies in which he starred and acted (he appeared in 31 of them between 1956 and 1969), a few concert offerings, and a couple of other movies that offer a closer look at his private life.
So has Elvis left the building? In one sense, yeah, of course…and the shocking circumstances of his death left us all shook up. But there’s so much material on him out there for us to watch, read, listen to and enjoy—his catalog of music has never gone out of circulation—one could almost say that in death, Elvis is even bigger than he was in life. Or as Time magazine put it in 1981, “The remark of the Hollywood cynic, upon hearing of Elvis’ death — “Good career move” — was prophecy after all.”
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Elvis’ third big-screen effort finds him portraying a convict who learns guitar while in prison and becomes a star upon his release. A musical drama best remembered for the rollicking dance sequence set to the film’s title song, Jailhouse Rock was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004.
King Creole (1958)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Loosely adapted from Harold Robbins’s 1952 bestseller A Stone for Danny Fisher and helmed by veteran Curtiz of Casablanca fame, King Creole follows a 19-year-old in New Orleans’ French Quarter who gets mixed up with crooks and a pair of local ladies (played by Carolyn Jones and Delores Hart) while taking advantage of multiple opportunities to sing at a local nightclub. This well-acted film holds the honor of having been banned in Mexico following its premiere at the Las Americas Cinema in Mexico City.
Wild in the Country (1961)
Directed by Philip Dunne
Elvis gets a chance to show off his acting chops alongside Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and Millie Perkins in this song-filled drama, penned by the estimable Clifford Odets. Set in the Shenandoah Valley, it concerns a confused young man marked as a troublemaker who discovers he has knack for writing and is encouraged by an attractive therapist to pursue a literary career.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Directed by George Sidney
Generally regarded by fans and critics as one of Elvis’s most entertaining films, Viva Las Vegas is a glittery, lively concoction. Elvis is racecar driver Lucky Jackson, who arrives in Sin City to participate in Vegas’ first annual Grand Prix, but ends up working as a hotel waiter and getting involved with the joint’s swimming instructor (a slinky Ann-Margret). A solid set of song-and-dance sequences and some tingly onscreen chemistry between the sexy leading players helped make this one a smash.
Elvis ’68 Comeback Special (1968)
Directed by Steven Binder
This televised concert, aired by NBC in December 1968, marked Elvis’ return to performing live after seven years of primarily focusing on making movies. Leathered up and ready to rock for a small studio audience, Elvis clearly had a grand old time with his band and the crowd. The hourlong show was an across-the-board critical and ratings hit, with its casual setting and sit-down section serving as a forerunner to MTV Unplugged.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970)
Directed by Denis Sanders
Alternating between live concert material and rehearsal footage of Elvis’ Summer Festival in Las Vegas during the summer of 1970, this documentary was primarily filmed onstage and behind-the-scenes at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The fest marked the beginning of Elvis’s regular biannual concert dates at the International, which became a Hilton property less than a year later.
Elvis on Tour (1972)
Directed by Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge
Elvis’s 15-city U.S. tour in the spring of 1972 is the focus of this lively concert film. The production team filmed four Elvis shows that were later interspersed with interview segments. Young filmmaker Martin Scorsese received a credit as “montage supervisor” for his work on the split-screen segments of the concert sections.
Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite (1973)
Directed by Marty Pasetta
Nixon’s 1972 visit to China reportedly inspired Colonel Tom Parker to promote a worldwide concert that would include record label and TV network tie-ins. Broadcast live around the world on January 14, 1973, the show featured a stage runway to allow Elvis to get closer to the audience, a specially designed embroidered white jumpsuit and cape for Elvis and a strict pre-concert weight-loss regime for the then-portly superstar. The “live” concert was actually broadcast on NBC nearly two months later to avoid a programming conflict with Superbowl VII.
This Is Elvis (1981)
Directed by Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo
This curious documentary looks at the life of Elvis by combining archival footage with reenactments by four actors portraying Elvis at various ages, along with voiceover narration by Elvis sound-alike singer Ral Donner. A strange one, to be sure, but it’s glossy, fast-paced and filled with a solid selection of music.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018)
Directed by Thom Zimmy
An HBO Documentary Film production directed by noted Bruce Springsteen documentarian Zimmy and co-produced by Springsteen manager Jon Landau, this nearly four-hour production highlights the development and evolution of Elvis’ musical artistry. A well-researched and insightful project, The Searcher was initiated by an idea from Elvis’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley about the prospect of an honest telling of Elvis’s story primarily through his music.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.