This Is Elvis

Lies of omission
★★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Malcolm Leo, Andrew Solt
Starring: 
Elvis Presley, David Scott, Johnny Harra, Rhonda Lyn
The Setup: 
Biography of Elvis mixing real footage with re-enactments.
Discussion: 

I have a few Pauline Kael books in my bedroom, and often before going to bed I'll read a few reviews at random until I fall asleep. She had nothing but disdain to pile on this movie, largely for its scenes of others portraying Elvis (and falling far short) and wholesale misunderstanding of the Elvis phenomenon, as well as failing to really engage with the tragedy of his bloated later years. Nevertheless, it sounded like something I needed to see NOW, because I have never really sat down and taken a deep dive into what Elvis was all about, and this promised a good survey, with lots of original footage, going right up to the bloated years and his eventual death. On this count, it delivered.

We open with a recreation of Elvis arriving home after a concert. We only see the actor playing him from the back, but we do gets lots of good footage of the interior of Graceland, which was tacky as all-get-out. Interspersed with this are shots of his assistants preparing a hotel for his arrival the next night, arranging racks of his clothes--the studded jumpsuits we recall from the later years--and putting up foil to completely block out the windows. Then we learn that Elvis has died, and have some good footage of fans at the time expressing their devotion.

Then we go back to Tupelo, MS in 1946, where we begin to have an actor delivering voice-over as Elvis. We see a friend bring him into the shacks where the blacks of the time lived, where he hears blues for the first time. We are told that he spent a lot of time there and absorbed that music. The family moved to Memphis in 1953, when Elvis was a teen, who, the movie states, had his hear teased up into his big well-known pompadour before anyone else in town had their like that. He was apparently a bit of an outcast until one day at show and tell he wowed his high school class with a rendition of a blues song. He is soon hanging out at Sun studios, where he meets his lifelong producer, Colonel Tom Parker. They are recording, trying to find the sound, until Elvis decides to do a blues number and everyone knows: this is it.

The first few songs we hear are renditions by an actor, and I thought this was not that effective strategy, but it turns out to be, for the first time we see the actual Elvis, it's immediately clear why he became a sensation, and it was totally revealing, for me at least, as to what the big deal about this guy was. First, he's astonishingly good-looking. Second, he has an electrifying, assured voice. Third, he has this style of keeping to small body movements, which suddenly explode in wild gyrations that make it seem as though he has suddenly been driven crazy by the excitement in his body. And finally, he has this dazed, somewhere-else look in his eye that allows you to project all sorts of things on it, whether deep sensuality or just an assured, outside-of-time confidence. It just all comes together to make one astonishingly magnetic guy, and it's obvious at once why he became a mega-star. He's one of those rare people you just can't take your eyes off.

He becomes an immediate sensation, and soon we are seeing throngs of girls who have given up all self-consciousness, being driven to wild emotional excess. Some of them are in ecstasy, some seem to be in pain, some stunned and trying to recover. It would be a fascinating study to delve into how his appearances at the time were so unusually sexual, given the repressed quality of what was out at the time, to the extent that it drove women into temporary psychosis. This gained wide attention in a televised performance of Hound Dog, in which at a certain point Elvis just seems to be overcome with uncontrollable bodily energy. Looking back now, it barely seems sexual, but we have to understand what a departure it was at the time. It is enough to shock concerned citizens, who start rallying against Elvis and his music. We have a few instances of respectable people, including one civic leader on television, casually stating that Elvis is playing "filthy N------- music" as though that is a perfectly acceptable thing to say, which it was at the time. One also had to remember that Elvis represented the bursting of rock and roll into the popular consciousness, and that this was a massive, dangerous contrast to what had come before. Again, difficult to see in retrospect, but this movie offers a bit of understanding of how that could have been so.

The controversy rages, with police taping Elvis concerts and serious concern that his music would cause the breakdown of civilization, until Ed Sullivan comes on after an Elvis performance and tells the nation that Elvis is a good, decent boy. At least the movie makes it seem like, with one swoop, this ended the controversy, although one suspects otherwise. Elvis makes a few movies, which replace his live performances, then is drafted and goes to war. I suspect there is a lot more analysis to be done of the impact of seeing the biggest star in the land go off into the Army like anyone else. When Elvis is in Germany he meets Priscilla, who was FOURTEEN at the time. Obviously one wants to know a LOT more of what was happening with THIS relationship (Elvis was 25 at the time. Kael points out that Priscilla looked like a mini, female version of Elvis himself, and suspects some kind of bizarre surrogate-sibling relationship). Just as obviously, the movie doesn't go there AT ALL. In real life they had a seven-year courtship, then marry as soon as she turns twenty-one. In here he had bought Graceland for himself and his parents, and brought Priscilla over to live with him long before she was of legal age.

In here Elvis is done with the Army, is not performing in public, his mother dies, and he is churning out terrible movie after terrible movie, all of which, we are to understand, is wearing on his soul. He had ambitions of being a serious actor, but found himself appearing as somewhat of a trained monkey in as many as three film's per year. In here something happens to him which we can only guess at, because the Elvis that emerges from this period is wearing the big sunglasses, the massive jewelry and studded bodysuits that would come to define his later, bloated, tacky look. I'd love to know what the change was, but it it left obscure. The film doesn't let us know this, but apparently by this time Elvis had been abandoned by all but his most ardent fans, and was considered to be a has-been.

From here on out, actually, one has to do a lot of reading between the lines to get a sense of what was really happening, as this film is loath to delve into anything that might be too critical of its subject. I recommend reading the Wiki entry on Elvis to get a fuller picture. Elvis wants to reconnect with audiences again, and stages what is now known as the '68 Comeback Special, in which he appears in a black leather jumpsuit and reminds the world why he was a mega-star. He starts a long series of concerts, including long stints in Las Vegas, but we can see that he is moving away from the tight, four-person combo sound of his earlier self into an overproduced sound backed by huge bands, and drained of the vitality his earlier music pulsed with. We see him becoming pudgy, though never as fat as we hear he became. He is wearing rings the size of doorknobs. He turns forty and at a certain point Priscilla, whom we are told he barely sees anymore, leaves him.

We start to hear that Elvis is spending long periods in hospitals, but not why he is there. We have fans discussing his sorry state and poor health, but the movie has told us nothing about the cause. Then three of Elvis' bodyguards write a tell-all book, and the film leaves it to THEM to say that Elvis has been addicted to drugs and prescription painkillers. We see Elvis on stage forgetting and babbling through a performance of "Are You Lonesome Tonight," which was apparently cut when this film was re-released. As far as the point of view of the film is concerned, Elvis' life was a series of triumphs, right to the end. Thus, reading some other material to get a fuller picture of what was actually happening is essential to getting the real story.

So this movie did what I wanted it to, which is give me a sense of why Elvis was the sensation he was, and give me a sense of his place in the context of music history. And you get to see a good chunk of Elvis footage that will give an overall sense of his development over his career. But as a documentary, this movie has serious flaws in that in the latter half of his career, the movie gets more and more vague, verging on becoming guilty of lies of omission. You will need to seek outside sources in order to get a complete picture of what is happening to Elvis, as the film only obliquely mentions the drug and health problems that plagued his later career. It is also notably lacking in psychological depth and insight, so we really have no sense of what is going on in his head. He was obviously a changed man after he returned from the war and his mother died, only we get no real sense of what these changes were. He obviously felt restricted and cut off from music by his series of films, but we only get a surface-level reading of how this affected him. So see it if you know nothing about Elvis and want to understand why he was a big deal, but you'll need to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself about why his career declined and what was happening during that time.

Should you watch it: 

If you want to know why Elvis was the sensation he was and his importance in pop history.