It might seem faintly sacrilegious to cast a skinny Irish actor as American legend Elvis Presley, but misgivings turn out to be groundless. Only a few minutes into Elvis, the powerful new CBS movie biography, actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers ceases to exist -- and the King is born again.
Rhys-Meyers gives a moving and meticulous performance in a film that tells the Elvis story in a way it has never been told before -- not just with new details about his life and loves but with a more palpable demonstration of his talent, his idiosyncrasies, and the joy he brought into the world -- a joy he didn't take with him when he left it.
As usual with its two-part movies, CBS has scheduled Elvis in a way seemingly designed to confuse viewers. Part One aired Sunday, and Part Two doesn't materialize until the following Wednesday.
The production is lavish, but, when it comes to depicting Presley's concert appearances, not really spectacular. The big letdown is that the producers (who number in what seems like dozens) make the glaring error of tossing in newsreel clips of the real Elvis at certain points in his career -- when he is drafted into the Army, for instance. This tacky cinematic shortcut can't help but undermine Rhys-Meyers, who is doing such a splendid job of making him and Elvis almost indistinguishable.
Elvis' story has, of course, been told many times and in many venues. ABC did its own Elvis as a one-night, three-hour event back in February 1979. (Like May, February is a ratings sweeps month.) That Elvis aired opposite Gone With the Wind and the TV premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kurt Russell, who as a child kicked Elvis in the shin in Presley's movie It Happened at the World's Fair, did a pretty good job playing the grown-up Elvis, but the movie was anything but definitive.
The CBS Elvis was made with the cooperation of the Presley estate; Elvis Presley Enterprises is listed in the credits as "creative consultants." One might fear a homogenized version of the King's reign with such credentials as those, but the movie hardly lacks for candor. Elvis, for all his intrinsic ingenuousness, is shown as undisciplined and impetuous, a dreamy-eyed kid who never grew up and a mama's boy whose devotion to his mother was, like so many things in his life, strangely excessive.
Although it is touched on lightly, we do see some of Elvis' latter-day reliance on medication -- drugs to wake him up and cool him down. But much of the bizarre Presley behavior, like fried banana-and-peanut-butter sandwiches in the middle of the night, isn't shown. The movie stops almost a decade short of Presley's 1977 death, closing in 1968, the year of Elvis' triumphant comeback on television, the medium that enabled him to become a national sensation in the first place.
Many fine actors spin around convincingly in Presley's inner circle. Camryn Manheim, almost unrecognizable, is a provocative maternal aberration as Presley's weeping and worrying mama. Robert Patrick, best remembered as a metallic monstrosity in the second Terminator film, is surprisingly effective as Elvis' moody father, who clearly ran a distant second to Mama in the Presley pantheon of valued advisers.
The chief contender for mama's mantle is the conniving, money-mad tyrant Tom Parker, who insists on being called "Colonel" and is played with a ferocity that is somehow poignant by Randy Quaid -- next to Rhys-Meyers, the most commanding presence in the film. Parker confesses to Elvis at the outset that he doesn't even like rock-and-roll, but he knows the music business and convinces Elvis to trust him in virtually all things, often to the frustration of others who know better.
The second half of the movie is unfortunately bleak and morose as it shows Elvis in decline. Musical numbers grow way too scarce. But overall, Elvis, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan and directed by James Sadwith, has to be ranked a success, depicting Elvis with insights and subtleties that have eluded some other biographers. He's often depicted as an icon of the '50s, next to Marilyn Monroe and Howdy Doody, but Elvis transcends his own time and defies attempts to dismiss him as kitsch. He was the American dream incarnate -- its proverbial dark side, yes, but the glory of it too.
The last song he sings in the film is "If I Can Dream." He could, and he did, and he lives on to seduce and inspire other dreamers everywhere. Elvis is true to the man, the dream, and the legend -- perhaps as true as Elvis was to himself. •