Friday, August 5, 2016

That’s Alright Mama, or Thoughts on Kurt Russell in Elvis

The Elvis TV movie (1979) came out only 2 years after his death, starring former child actor Kurt Russell in one of his first adult roles.  The timing is interesting because Elvis was still very much in the pop culture memory, and from an historical perspective it’s a far more accurate portrayal in terms of costume and hair simply because it’s so close to the source.  Additionally, it’s an Elvis biopic with an actual soundtrack by The King of Rock and Roll; the film opens with Mystery Train, and highlights entire career with That’s Alright Mama, Shake Rattle and Roll, Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes and southern favorites like Old Shep and the Battle Hymn of The Republic.
Kurt Russell portrays the King of Rock and Roll over a couple decades; he has the drawl, the snarl and the hair, but the actual singing was performed by country singer and Elvis sound-alike Ronnie McDowell.  The movie follows Elvis’ life in flashback as he broods in a Las Vegas hotel room and shoots the TV with a pearl-handled revolver.  Season Hubley, who met and married Kurt Russell during filming, stars as Priscilla.  You may have seen her cameo in Escape From New York (1981), but she is primarily remembered for guest starring in classic TV shows like The Partridge Family, Kung Fu, Kojak and Starsky and Hutch.
The entire Elvis mythology is explored as the movie highlights key events in his short life (Elvis died at 42); from his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon, his roots in Christian spirituals, African-American blues inspiration, rockabilly high school, filming at the actual Sun Studios in Memphis, his army service, meeting Priscilla, and of course, the Vegas years.  Shelly Winters stars as Gladys, Elvis’ overprotective mother who bought him his first guitar, while Pat Hingle, who you may remember as Commissioner Gordon in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), portrays Colonel Tom Parker Elvis’ overprotective manager.
Director John Carpenter, fresh off the success of Halloween (1978) filmed a straightforward TV movie, as if his directorial style was subverted by the music and star power of Elvis Presley, but little John Carpenter-y tics come out in long pans of guitars in pawnshops and symmetrical shots hotel hallways.  This was also his first time working with Kurt Russell, who would become his greatest collaborator in Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Escape From L.A. (1996).
Coincidentally, Kurt Russell had previously worked with Elvis Presley as a child actor in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963, he got to kick him in his big scene).  And watching the scenes of him playing guitar as The King, I can’t help but think of an older Kurt Russell smashing the priceless Martin antique guitar 36 years later in The Hateful Eight (2015).  Watch it again and check out Jennifer Jason Leigh’s reaction, that’s not acting.

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