Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, or Thoughts on Elvis and Nixon

These are the historical facts: on December 21, 1970, The Leader of the Free World met The King of Rock and Roll.  Richard Nixon presented Elvis Presley with a badge, swore him in as a “Federal Special Agent at Large” and they posed for the now infamous photo that asks more question than it will ever answer.  This photo, and the days leading up to it is the subject of Elvis & Nixon (2014), a gloriously uneven snapshot of these two American icons and the absurd conversation and karate demonstration they may or may not have had in the Oval Office.
Can you imagine Kanye or Lady Gaga pulling a stunt like that today?  Can you imagine Lady Gaga wanting to be a Federal Special Agent at Large?   Elvis was one of the last conservative and openly right wing pop stars, and certainly the most famous to date.   Michael Shannon, who you know as General Zod in Man of Steel (2013) and from his brilliant journey as Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) plays Elvis Aaron Presley, and Kevin Spacey, who you know because he’s Kevin Spacey, portrays Richard Milhous Nixon.
It has to be mentioned that this is a movie about Elvis, with “Elvis”” in the title, without a single Elvis song on the soundtrack.  The mood and tone of the decade is instead set with funky hits like “Hold On, I’m Coming” by Sam & Dave, “Spinning Wheel” by Blood Sweat and Tears and Creedence’s “Susie-Q”, songs that immediately anchor the audience in a time and place, but have nothing to do with Elvis.  The King stood 6’0” tall, and Michael Shannon is a lanky 6”3’.  He may have the drawl, the sideburns and the sunglasses, but his Elvis is far more svelte and towers over his co-stars.  These tiny details matter, especially if you’re not even going to secure the rights to any of The King’s songs. 
The most poignant and effective scene is when Elvis stands in front of a mirror and explains his Elvis personae, and how it swallowed and overwhelmed the “boy from Memphis”.  Michael Shannon’s Elvis is a TV shooting, jangly, and nervous costumed vampire cowboy, his paranoid performance implies his pill addiction without actually showing it.  It’s not what I would call an affectionate portrayal of the literal King of Rock and Roll, and without a love of the source material, what’s the sense of even making this movie? 
Kevin Spacey is always reliable, and his charismatic impression on another iconic president is more traditional and closer to the actual public figure.  A natural mimic, he channels Nixon by way of Jack Lemmon; he has the body language and voice down, and in his own way is just as paranoid and nervous as The King of Rock and Roll.  It’s ironic that he played the singer Bobby Darin in the 2004 biopic Beyond The Sea, where he actually sang, but he steals every scene he’s in with his star presence, sly comedic timing and consummate acting skills.
From Amazon Studios, the movie also features Evan Peters, Colin Hanks (who did such a great job in Fargo Season 1) and Johnny Knoxville, perfectly cast as Sonny West of the Memphis Mafia.  English actor Alex Pettyfer from I Am Number Four (2011) and Magic Mike (2012) portrays Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ long-suffering PR Director, confidante and babysitter.
Elvis lives, in his own movies and fantastic alternate histories like Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), where he’s played by Bruce Campbell and fights an ancient Egyptian Mummy, and also Kurt Russell’s biopic Elvis (1979 directed by John Carpenter).  Watch both along with Elvis and Nixon, and make time for Blue Hawaii (1961), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and Viva Las Vegas (1964).


my first novel? thanks for asking:)  it’s a 4-volume supernatural martial arts series chock full of haunted carnivals, punk rock assassins, killer kung-fu witches and a 24-hr diner with the best pie in town…