The Men Who Would Be King


Last week, I talked about the new indie film Elvis & Nixon, which is loosely based on the time that Elvis Presley made an impromptu visit to Washington D.C., to drop in on President Richard Nixon. The event resulted in the most widely requested photo in the National Archives.

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as the King and the President respectively. Shannon tackles the impossible task of playing Presley and does so with sincerity and sympathy. Thankfully, he was able to suggest the King’s Southern accent and vocal characteristics without resorting to impersonator-like tricks and gimmicks. Thin and gangly, with a kind of scarecrow look, Shannon does not remotely look like Elvis, which is distracting. But, he was compelling to watch. Elvis & Nixon reminded me of other films about Elvis Presley in which actors portray the King. Their interpretations range from the credible to the ridiculous.





On February 11, 1979, ABC-TV aired Elvis, the first biopic of the singer’s life. Well-crafted and sincere, this made-for-television feature was directed by John Carpenter and produced by Dick Clark. Airing 18 months after Presley’s death, the biopic starred Kurt Russell, who offered a complex, sympathetic portrayal of Elvis during a time when controversy, scandal, and rumor were swirling over his drug use and excessive lifestyle. TCM often airs a tribute to Elvis by Russell, because the actor crossed paths with the King more than once in his career. It started in 1963 with It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), when ten-year-old Russell had a walk-on as a bratty boy who kicks Elvis in the shins—a moment captured forever in a famous film still.

In 1994, Russell supplied the voice for the character Elvis Presley in Forrest Gump, though Peter Dobson acted the role onscreen. Early in the film, Elvis is an unknown singer staying at Mrs. Gump’s boarding house. He has not yet stumbled onto his signature performing style. Young Forrest wears leg braces because of a spinal condition, so he walks and moves in an awkward, jerky gate. When Elvis practices his music, Forrest begins to dance with his herky-jerky movements. Inspired by Forrest, Elvis works these movements into his act, and the rest is history. Personally, I never thought this joke was particularly clever, partly because it robs Elvis’s style of its sexual undertones and of its cultural significance as a fusion of black and white roots music—two factors that changed the course of popular music.



In 2001, Russell and Kevin Costner costarred as a pair of Elvis impersonators who are also thieves in 3000 Miles to Graceland.   Five impersonators rob a Vegas casino, but plans go awry when the head of the gang betrays his companions. In dressing the thieves like grubby impersonators, who are in effect faux representations of a unique, authentic entertainer, the film suggests that a corruption of sorts has infested America. Here, Vegas is a dark, gritty town, and the seedy-looking impersonators with their extra-long sideburns and ultra-tacky jumpsuits are more than excessive; they are decadent and vulgar. The twist is that two of them may be Elvis’s illegitimate sons, who struggle with their identity. Despite this thoughtful use of Elvis’s image as a cultural icon, the poorly crafted film alienated Elvis fans with its nonstop profanity and extreme violence.





The success of Carpenter’s Elvis in 1979 influenced the production of other TV biopics. Elvis and the Beauty Queen (1981), a syrupy account of the relationship between Elvis and Linda Thompson, suffered from the miscasting of Don Johnson, whose raspy tenor voice was the opposite of Elvis’s deep low tones. Then there was Elvis and Me (1988), a two-part miniseries based on Priscilla Presley’s autobiography of the same title. Dale Midkiff made for a distant, uncharismatic Elvis, though that did not stop 32 million viewers from making it the highest-rated miniseries of that season.

Released to theaters in 1988, Heartbreak Hotel starred David Keith as Elvis. Like Michael Shannon, Keith looked nothing like Presley, but this warm-hearted comedy has an interesting premise. A teenage boy kidnaps Elvis and brings him home to his single mother in a small Ohio town. Coincidentally, the mother is played by Tuesday Weld, who costarred with Elvis in Wild in the Country. The mother is depressed, lonely, and always falls for the wrong man; the son lacks self-confidence; and the daughter is afraid of the monsters that lurk in the dark. Like a bona fide movie hero, Elvis rescues them from their problems. As he repairs the fixtures on the house, mows the lawn, and even redecorates, he restores order within the family, fixing broken hearts and mending egos. At the same time, Elvis finds happiness in living an everyday life–something he will never know as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.



In terms of looks, voice, and attitude, Michael St. Gerard made for a dynamic Presley in two films and a television series. In 1989, Great Balls of Fire chronicled the career of rockabilly singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who, like Elvis, had started with the Sun record label in Memphis. Lewis is presented as the rock ‘n’ roller destined to follow in the footsteps of Elvis Presley, who is used as a symbol of the highest level of fame and fortune. Lewis’s closeness to that goal is indicated in two scenes involving Elvis. As Lewis’s star is rising, Elvis is shown alone and jealous of the immense fan adulation enjoyed by his rival. Later, just as Lewis is about to reach the pinnacle of success, Elvis is drafted into the army. He finds Jerry Lee alone in the Sun studio and bitterly tells him, “Take it, take it all.” St. Gerard also played Elvis in Heart of Dixie, a drama about racial tensions in the South during the 1950s. Elvis, who did attract African Americans to his shows, is depicted as a symbol of change, though that change will not come easily. At an Elvis concert, white audience members brutally attack a black couple who are dancing to the music.



In the spring of 1990, ABC-TV launched Elvis, a television series based on the very beginning of the singer’s career, before he became a national sensation. The series was short-lived, but it offered the public a thought-provoking interpretation of Elvis’s life. Starring St. Gerard, the series was based on Elvis’s real-life experiences. Some episodes were allegories that foretold Elvis’s future as a pop music legend, while others commented on the effect of his childhood on the rest of his life. Shot on location, with stellar production values and a talented cast, Elvis the series remains the best interpretation of Presley’s life and career because it reached beyond biography to find a deeper meaning. It was produced by Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling, a member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia who is played by Alex Pettyfer in Elvis & Nixon.

In 2005, a new biopic titled Elvis was fully supported by the Presley estate and became the first to feature Elvis’s master recordings. Despite this pedigree, the two-part miniseries lacked sufficient insight to be anything more than a conventional biopic. I found star Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ interpretation of Presley bland, partly because the role seemed to lack a true understanding of Elvis’s southern roots.



That same year, a biopic of Johnny Cash–another legendary singer for Sun Records–attracted critical acclaim and popular success. While Walk the Line focuses mostly on Cash’s romance with June Carter, it does capture the earliest days of rockabilly, when Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis packed themselves into beat‑up cars and drove from gig to gig, where they played to screaming girls in sold‑out auditoriums. Tyler Hilton and Waylon Payne play Elvis and Jerry Lee respectively. Payne portrays Jerry Lee as an out-of-control prankster who thinks of himself as a God-fearing Christian. A walking contradiction, he likes to blow things up with dynamite and then remind the group that they are all going to hell for singing the Devil’s music. Elvis is depicted as the object of unbridled lust for most of the girls in the audience. Together, the pair embodies the sexuality and uninhibited spirit of rockabilly–a new sound for a new generation.

Though some of these pop culture moments in time are lost forever for better or worse (i.e., Elvis and the Beauty Queen), others are just a click away in your Netflix queue.


Race to the Border

Fast and Furioius vintage poster

This Thursday, May 5th, celebrate your Cinco de Mayo with The Fast and the Furious. No, not the recent franchise-spawning movie of same name directed by Rob Cohen starring Michelle Rodriguez (who has her roots in Puerto Rico, not Mexico). I refer, instead, to the 50’s version involving a prison escapee and a fast-car loving woman as they both make a mad dash to Mexico. [...MORE]

April 30, 2016
David Kalat
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The Artist Formerly Known as Walter Paisley

As regular readers here know, I’ve got a thing for documentaries that ruminate on the meaning of “art” and dig into the gray areas of artistic expression.  Well, I also like fictional satires on the art world, too—and one of the cleverest, Roger Corman’s gloriously bonkers A Bucket of Blood (1959) is on TCM on Thursday the 5th (set your DVRs).

A Bucket of Blood stars Dick Miller as “Walter Paisley,” lowly busboy in a coffee bar/art gallery. The poor guy is a little slow, and as impressionable as a child. Too bad his biggest influences are self-absorbed young adults preening with affectation: they wear bathrobes and creative facial hair, blather on about organic farming and obscure foodstuffs, constantly projecting an air of bored indifference. They rally around a beatnik poet whose manifesto declares that Art is more important than anything, even the lives of other human beings. And Walter wants nothing more than to be one of them.

The joke is that he wins their accolades and respect only by taking that callous screed literally – he kills people and turns their corpses into Art. That part is familiar – on loan from House of Wax (1953), the film that made Vincent Price a household name just a few years earlier. A Bucket of Blood distinguishes itself not by plot points but by context – let Vincent Price mummify his victims with nary a tongue in cheek, but Dick Miller’s body of work is gloriously absurd.


KEYWORDS: A Bucket of Blood, Dick Miller, Roger Corman

Wait, that’s what it’s about?!

We all make mistakes.  I’ve made far too many to count at this point in my life but we learn from our mistakes as well.  Sometimes, at least.  One mistake I have repeatedly made in the world of cinema is not fully investigating what a movie is about before deciding whether or not to see it.  I don’t mean reading up on the plot, I mean just a basic idea of the story.   In many of these cases, when I finally discovered, by finally watching the movie, what it was really about, I was annoyed at myself that I hadn’t seen it sooner.  Today, Peter Weir’s 1977 masterpiece, The Last Wave, airs today on TCM.  It’s the poster movie for this kind of thing with me and when I finally watched it, it became an instant favorite.  The same has happened for many others.



Star Scents: A Pictorial of Classic Film Star Fragrances


Sophia Loren is getting the red carpet treatment on Turner Classic Movies tonight (April 28). If you tune in at 8 PM EST/ 5 PM PST you can catch the multi-talented Italian actress in a live interview with her youngest son (Eduardo Ponti) that was recorded during her appearance at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2015. The interview is followed by a number of her films including the short Human Voice (2014) and four full-length features: Marriage, Italian Style (1964), Arabesque (1966), The Priest’s Wife (1970) and More Than a Miracle (1967).

Her most recent starring role is in a commercial for Dolce & Gabana’s new fragrance, ‘Dolce Rosa Excelsa.’ The ad was shot by Academy Award-winning director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso; 1988, A Pure Formality; 1994, The Legend of 1900; 1998, etc.) and features a score by Maestro Ennio Morricone. In this extravagant three-minute production (currently streaming on Youtube) Sophia Loren plays the matriarch of a large family that is restoring a luxurious Sicilian estate. It’s a charming commercial and while watching I was reminded that Loren had appeared in another perfume advertising campaign during the 1980s for Coty’s ‘Sophia’ fragrance, which was named after the actress. This got me thinking and my curiosity sent me on a quest. I decided to try and track down as many movie star scents as I could and what I discovered genuinely surprised me. What follows is a select pictorial of perfumes made famous by the actors who inspired, promoted and occasionally played a part in creating them.


Bonus: They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefé (2015) reviewed!

THEYCAMEFROMSWAMPNEWS Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, those dogged documentarians who have brought added value to such special edition Blu-ray/DVD releases as VCI Entertainment’s GORGO (1961) and THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! (1968), Scream Factory’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987), Synapse Films’ TWINS OF EVIL (1971) and HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971), Kino-Lorber’s MADHOUSE (1973), and Full Moon’s TOURIST TRAP (1979) and TRANCERS (1985) — among others — have gone longform with a retrospective look at the career of Florida filmmaker William Grefé. This two-disc collector’s edition includes not only Ballyhoo’s feature length documentary THEY CAME FROM THE SWAMP: THE FILMS OF WILLIAM GREFÉ (2015) but the bonus of Grefé’s penultimate theatrical film, WHISKEY MOUNTAIN (1977). I’ll wait here if you want to go order your copy now. [...MORE]

This week on TCM Underground: God Told Me To (1976) and It’s Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978)


It’s always a party when Larry Cohen is in the house.


A Toast to Dolemite (1975)

Dolemite #1


“These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer joint and liquor store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit. What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me those tales. And then I’d take them and freshen them up.” – Rudy Ray Moore

Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in  (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.


Elvis & Nixon: A Match Made in Pop Culture Heaven

blogopenerElvis & Nixon opened over the weekend with little fanfare but with a barrage of unconstructive, ineffectual reviews. Liza Johnson directed this slice-of-Elvis-lore, which chronicles the time that Presley flew to Washington, D.C., on the spur of the moment to meet President Richard Nixon. Their meeting resulted in a famous photo of the two iconic figures shaking hands, which is the most requested image from the National Archives. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as Presley and Nixon.

The movie prompted me to go back to my collection of Presley bios and resources to reexamine the incident. I checked in All Shook Up: Elvis Day by Day, 1954-1977, which is my favorite reference because it objectively and succinctly chronicles Presley’s actions on a day by day basis. I also reread parts of Peter Guralnik’s definitive, two-volume biography. I offer a pared down version of the event here, not to accuse the film of inaccuracy but to provide a proper backstory. On December 19, 1970, after an argument with his family about overspending for Christmas, Elvis boarded a commercial flight in Memphis bound for Washington, D.C. He checked into the Washington Hotel as Jon Burrows, one of his aliases. That night, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles, arriving well after midnight. Jerry Schilling, a former member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia, met him at the plane with a limo. After dropping off at least two stewardesses, whom Elvis had promised a ride, he and Schilling arrived at Presley’s house on Hillcrest Drive. The following morning, December 20, the pair flew to Washington, D.C., with Elvis using the alias Dr. John Carpenter (his character’s name in his last film, Change of Habit).


Why Should a Movie Make Sense?

This is a brief excerpt from an interview with David Lynch, conducted by Jason Barlow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

David Lynch: I saw Eraserhead last with my then 14-year old son.

Jason Barlow: …and what questions did it prompt from him?

DL: I don’t answer them really. But he really liked it. Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film.

JB: Elaborate on that.

DL: No, I won’t. [Laughter]

And he doesn’t.  To his credit, Barlow does not press him on it either.  This is something that comes up from time to time whenever people feel that art should have a definable center.  Although Barlow was simply asking for an elaboration, no great sin and certainly a natural follow up to Lynch’s response, a lesser appreciator of film might have asked Lynch what the movie means.  Oh brother, do I hate it when someone wants to know what a movie, or for that matter a book, song, or poem, means.  Art is an act of communication.  Just because the artist is communicating something specific from within the artist doesn’t mean that’s what gets communicated to me, you, or anyone else.


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