"this is Elvis" isn't the best movie I've ever seen. Actually, it's a pretty awful
thing, a documentary-docudrama hybrid narrated by the King himself,
speaking from beyond the grave (through an Elvis impersonator who doesn't
much sound like him). It has actors re-creating moments from Elvis' life in
scenes that have all the production values and drama of a "re-enactment" on
The only time I ever fell in love in a movie theater, I was
watching "This is Elvis." And I didn't fall in love with my date. (Who am I
kidding? What date?) I fell in love with Elvis Presley, who had been dead
for four years.
By the time I came along, Elvis was just another one of those washed-up
guys who'd been famous for a long time and had a TV special every once in a
while, like Andy Williams or Jonathan Winters. I knew the story -- the
lunging crowds, the screaming girls, the anti-rock 'n' roll speechifying. I
knew about all the records he'd sold and the endless devotion of his fans.
I just never really got it. He'd always seemed, well, sort of tame. You
know, let me be your teddy bear.
Sitting in a theater as a teenager, I figured I'd see more of what I'd
already seen. I sat through the ridiculous early scenes, starting -- as
post-1977 Elvis books and movies always do -- with the fateful keeling over
in the potty scene, then rushing through his childhood and adolescence,
where he's portrayed as sort of a Huck Finn with a guitar, not the pretty,
sensitive boy who was much clucked-over by the neighborhood women.
Then comes his television debut, on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's "Stage Show."
The kinescope clip is a pretty common bit of Elvisianna now. But it wasn't
in 1981, and I'd never seen it. Elvis comes out in a dark suit and white
tie and launches into "Shake, Rattle and Roll." For most of the song he's
in close-up, but at the instrumental break, he and the camera both back up.
Now visible head to toe, he does this frenetic, bouncing, standing-in-one
spot dance as he furiously strums his guitar. As he walks back to the mike,
he turns his gum over in his mouth before singing the next verse, actually
a segue into "Flip, Flop and Fly."
I felt like I'd taken speed. My heart pounded. I wanted to tear my chair
out of the theater floor and throw it. I wanted to head-butt somebody or
drive 100 miles an hour. Imagine seeing that performance in early 1956,
when singers were gracious, polite and subdued, before people got used to
the idea that one might punctuate his performance by, say, biting the head
off a chicken. He was just so damn wild.
It's downhill from there. Within minutes, he's in tails, singing to a dog
on Steve Allen's show. He appears to be stoned on an interview show called
"Hy Gardner Calling!" The long, dreary decline that occupied 21 of the 22
years Elvis was famous -- interrupted only for one night, the magnificent
1968 "comeback special" -- is well-documented. And now, Elvis is one of our
national jokes. The impersonators and the wedding chapels and I saw him in a
supermarket in Kalamazoo ha ha ha.
It's his own fault. He lived like a damn fool and squandered a prodigious
talent. But it's a shame that he's remembered more for shooting at TVs and
eating disgusting sandwiches than for his inimitable singing (sorry, lame
impersonators) and his astonishing charisma. I remembered him that way too,
until I saw "This is Elvis." It taught me a whole new way to see, and what
more can you ask from a night at the movies?