Cult Movies: 1979 Elvis miniseries a 'fine rags-to-riches story told with class and considerable charm'

Kurt Russell as Elvis
Ralph McLean

Elvis (1979)

AS BAZ Luhrmann's predicably lavish, glitzy and – if we're being totally honest here – historically unreliable Elvis film opens in cinemas this weekend, it's perhaps a good time to remember a previous attempt to capture the essence of the man they called 'The Memphis Flash' on film.

Elvis was a TV miniseries that appeared in 1979, just two short years after the great man's passing. With the great Kurt Russell playing the King of Rock and Roll and no less a craftsman than John Carpenter on director duties, it's a fine rags-to-riches story told with class and considerable charm.

It's also, it's worth noting, a very effective cash-in on the Elvis sorrow that swept the world post-1977, and as such it contains little in the way of scandal or revelation for those seeking such sordid thrills.

This is a straightforward telling of the tale that traces the Elvis phenomenon from his dirt-poor beginnings in Tupelo through the grandeur of Graceland, the ever decreasing artistic black hole that was his Hollywood career, his marriage break-up and his ultimate sorry demise.

That the film winds up around the singer's comeback Las Vegas gigs in 1970 hardly matters. Audiences at the time would have been all too aware of the miserable final years and the clues towards his weaknesses and career derailing foibles are all present and correct by that point anyway.

Russell pulls off the difficult role of Elvis with impressive aplomb throughout. He looks a lot like the man, which certainly helps when you're playing one of the most recognisable figures in popular culture history, and he channels some of that industrial level charisma that Elvis seemed to ooze so effortlessly every time he's on screen.

The actor had a little real life Elvis history himself, of course, having made his all too brief big screen debut in 1963 alongside the icon in It Happened At The World's Fair, playing an uncredited kid who gets to kick The King in the shins and little else.

Here, he builds on the teen idol persona that he'd been building through a series of successful Disney offerings at the time to bring a believable version of the young Elvis to our screens. He also forged a relationship with John Carpenter that saw him star in some of the director's subsequent cult classics such as Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China – but that, dear reader, is a column for another day.

Russell nails Elvis as the simple but gifted kid who's rocketed to fame without knowing too much about what's going on at all. The supporting cast is great as well, with Shelly Winters playing Presley's much beloved mother Gladys and Pat Hingle weighing in as the exploiter supreme, Colonel Tom Parker. There's even a role for Russell's own dad Bing as Elvis' ineffectual father, Vernon.

Being a made for US TV production (though it received a cinema release in Europe), there are historical gaps in the timeline that some will find frustrating – but as a simple re-telling of the Elvis story, this version leaves most of the others in its wake.

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