Sunday, May 26, 2013

THIS IS ELVIS (1981)


The history of popular culture is littered with examples of individuals who couldnt handle fame & celebrity, who were capital-D-Destroyed by fame, who were swallowed up by drug use, who were 
[ add-your-own-melodramatic-blurb-here ], but I dont think there is any as fascinating, electrifying and movingly tragic as Elvis Presley.

THIS IS ELVIS is a superficial, "Elvis-for-Dummies"-like recap of Elvis Presley's life and career. It's an extraordinarily inept documentary, from the decision of the filmmakers to include highly expendable re-enactments (with actors playing Elvis) of some not very important moments in Elvis' life (e.g. Elvis driving up his driveway and going into his house and saying "Yes" to a sandwich offered by another actor presumably playing his maid) to the decision of the filmmakers to have Elvis (actually, an unconvincing voice impersonator) narrate and comment on the events we are shown of Elvis' life via footage of the real Elvis (but the documentary starts with Elvis' death, so the film is being narrated by a dead man? Maybe Sam Mendes watched THIS IS ELVIS before directing AMERICAN BEAUTY and stole that idea) to the filmmakers repeated use of real Elvis footage out of its proper context (as when Elvis is about to do his 1968 TV special, and that fake dead Elvis narration is telling us how excited he is to be in rehearsals for the 1968 TV special but the filmmakers are showing rehearsal footage from THATS THE WAY IT IS, two years later! then, the filmmakers illustrate Elvis' return-to-live-concert-performing 1969 Vegas shows with concert footage also taken from THATS THE WAY IT IS and even footage from ELVIS ON TOUR from 1972!).

But, like the title says, There is Elvis, Here is Elvis, That is Elvis, at the center of the film, the entire arc of his career, presented via footage (taken from TV, theatrical movies, home movies) of the real Elvis. THIS IS ELVIS offers no depth or insight into Elvis but you cant help but be moved when you follow that 1950s, young, innocently electrifying Elvis to the 1977 fat-man-squeezed-into-a-garish-Vegas-jumpsuit melting away as he sings the anthem of all soon-to-be-dead people, "My Way".

At the time of this film's original release in 1981, before the internet, before YouTube,  even before the common availability of VHS tapes, some of the footage in THIS IS ELVIS was simply incredible to behold: hilarious footage of 1974 Elvis, wearing very Elvis-ey sunglasses and a cool, albeit elaborately designed, karate gi, practicing karate at a karate school (hilarious because Elvis is practicing karate at a karate school while wearing those Elvis-y sunglasses and a cool, albeit elaborately designed, karate gi and I think he is wearing his usual bling too; when he takes the sunglasses off, he looks completely wasted); footage from the 1977 TV Special (this documentary is still the only way to see the clearest footage (however short) of this TV Special; even today, the 1977 TV Special remains officially unreleased and any footage of this TV special that you may find on the internet is always blurry, poorly duplicated).  The version of THIS IS ELVIS that recently aired on the Encore cable channel had footage of Elvis arriving with entourage to one of his concerts circa ELVIS ON TOUR, and quite clearly, quite audibly expounding to his bodyguards on just how great the blowjob he received from some chick the night before was (quite great apparently and the "guys" / bodyguards are yukking it up) (I remember this scene being very audibly dubbed by a very obvious voice impersonator to soften up what Elvis says (I remember fake overdubbed Elvis saying something like "...that girl I was with last night, she could raise the dead..." and the "guys" / bodyguards still yukking it up like jackasses but this Encore version is quite clearly real Elvis saying "...you know that girl I was with last night, oh man, she gave great head boy...hey joe, that chick last night gave the greatest head I've had...")).

There was an extended version of THIS IS ELVIS on early VHS tapes (THIS IS ELVIS was packaged in one of those oversized plastic video boxes that most Warner Brothers films were packaged in during those early days of the video boom) featuring even more incredible footage including footage from Elvis' first not-very-successful engagement in Las Vegas in 1956, backstage footage of Elvis jammin' with Liberace(!) and a simply incredible version of "Unchained Melody" which is an outtake of the footage filmed for the 1977 TV Special...if the 1977 version of "My Way" is unavoidably maudlin and turgid (you cant help it with lyrics like those found in this song) and which is given real power by the special effect that is the incredible meting man who happens to be singing the song, this "Unchained Melody" is the exact opposite: it is a gut-wrenching plea scream from Elvis, "...I need your love, I need your love...", he's still melting away, even more so, this is in tighter close-up than the footage shot for "My Way" but the guy is just bringing it, giving it everything, when he sings "...Are you still Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnee...", its like...its like...well, remember Pacino's silent scream at the end of GODFATHER III? Its like that, only with a musical note...it is the one of the most devastatingly sad things I have ever seen / heard...

this footage hints at the real tragic story of Elvis' life that the full-of-fluff THIS IS ELVIS never really wants to come close to...

the footage of a press conference with the tell-all bodyguards who wrote the tabloid expose book ELVIS: WHAT HAPPENED is real juicy stuff (its shocking how confident and convincing the bodyguards are as they talk to the reporters) but the filmmakers behind THIS IS ELVIS try to shrug the bodyguards off by having that fake dead Elvis narration basically undercut the bodyguards' credibility, but then real Elvis unintentionally undermines the filmmakers intentions to whitewash everything because the next footage is of a pasty faced fat Elvis from the 1977 TV Special, but then the filmmakers behind THIS IS ELVIS try to shrug off pasty faced fat Elvis by having the voice of Elvis flunkie Joe Esposito (or maybe it's a voice-impersonator-Joe Esposito? You cant trust anything the filmmakers are giving you here) says "...Elvis accepted his appearance, and so did his fans...to the end, Elvis' greatest gift, his incredible voice, never left him..." but then real Elvis unintentionally undermines the filmmakers intentions to whitewash everything by not only forgetting the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight" but then trying charm the audience by "improvising" the spoken bridge of the song and this "improvisation" is some obviously scripted schtick but Elvis is so whacked out on pharmaceuticals that he struggles to remember the script and really has to improvise through his clouded mind...

The filmmakers, ever respectful, have "An American Trilogy" play over footage of Elvis' funeral and that is a pretty shameless choice by the filmmakers...in its own obvious, tacky, exaggerated way, it works, it may make you choke up (especially the fans)...but this bit of bombast, this need to deify its subject, merely points up the shortcomings of THIS IS ELVIS... 

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