Studio: Alive Mind
Cast: Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson
Director: Michael Rose
Release Date: November 16, 2009, 9:35 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:30m:49s
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: B
Elvis Presley is as closely associated with Memphis—Sun Records, Graceland—as is any pop culture figure to any American city, but fans of the King know that Presley's years in Tennessee began only in adolescence. He was a child of Tupelo, Mississippi, and this spirited documentary is an effort to shed some light on Elvis' earliest years, as well as to get some love for Tupelo for Presley's legions of fans. The gold standard for early Elvis is undoubtedly Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, as good a biography, of anyone, that you'll ever read; this is small beer in comparison, but it's not bad.
Kris Kristofferson narrates the straightforward telling of the facts: Vernon and Gladys Presley welcomed twins in 1935, though one was stillborn, leaving the surviving brother, Elvis, with a haunted sensation throughout his life. The film visits places like Elvis' elementary school, and the hardware store where Gladys bought her boy his first guitar, a present for his eleventh birthday; it also interviews childhood friends and family acquaintances, along with some professionals. You can tell they're all in the tank, though, and this is basically hero worship—one sports an ELVIS lapel pin, another has one of the all-time great job descriptions: Elvis Historian.
Director Michael Rose is particularly sensitive to racial issues, and the film is illuminating. He may claim too much—the suggestion that Presley is as important as Brown versus Board of Education in the dismantling of segregation, for instance—but the film is smart in discussing the influence of gospel music on young Presley, or what it meant for his family to live in an African-American neighborhood. The Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948, and the documentary takes us through some of the most familiar Presley lore: cutting a demo for Sam Phillips and Sun Records, the founding myth of That's All Right, Mama and the influence of Dewey Phillips' radio show; the appearance of the Colonel; and the sale of Presley's contract to RCA. There are also worthy bits on the Grand Ole Opry, where Elvis was obviously out of his element, and the Louisiana Hayride, a show that more suited his progressive style—especially fun is some early audio of Elvis performing.
The movie sends him off to glory, with Heartbreak Hotel, his first single on RCA, and his Hollywood debut, Love Me Tender, but the real capper is what the title suggests, a concert in Tupelo. Presley was apparently fearful of his reception, but it was a day for a hometown boy who made good. Unintentionally, the movie also presents us with an astonishing parade of hairpieces—toupees that are well groomed, pieces that look like dead animals nested on top of heads, and pretty much everything in between. Gentlemen, this is a movie that will make you want to own your baldness, lest you become a punchline.
The DVD is tricked out with an hour's worth of bonus footage, sort of a grab bag—contemporary newsreels about Elvis, and sequences apparently edited out of the final cut, taking a closer look at Col. Tom Parker, for instance, or debunking charges that Elvis Presley was a racist.
Jon Danziger November 16, 2009, 9:35 am