New York Times Review | This Is Elvis
By Janet Maslin - Originally published May 8, 1981
Sick and tired as anyone may be of the Presley mystique by now, 'This Is Elvis' is fascinating. This isn't a particularly well-made film, or even a truthful one - as a matter of fact, its fraudulence is its one uncompromising aspect. And yet it is mesmerizing, if not as a drama or documentary, then as an artifact. Here is the lavishly embalmed Elvis that Elvis' caretakers would have you see. Here also is the buoyant talent on which the legend was made. And here, most haunting of all, is the process by which the talent deteriorated, by which the man became the relic. There's some fabulous performance footage, too.
First, a word about the spirit in which 'This Is Elvis', which opens today at the Sutton Theater, was made. With the approval of Elvis' all-powerful manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and with unmistakable intent to hoodwink, the directors, Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt, have faked interviews, dramatic scenes and newsreels and interspersed them with the real thing. They have even created a 'voice of Elvis' to offer posthumous commentary on the niceness of Colonel Parker, the treachery of the Colonel's enemies, Elvis' regrets ('If only I could've seen what was happening to me, I would have done something about it'.) and just about everything save life beyond the grave.
After a scene in which Colonel Parker pretends to get the news of Elvis' death, the film cuts to glimpses of the very young Elvis in Tupelo, Miss., strolling down the lane like a latter-day Huck Finn, kneeling at the feet of an ancient bluesman (played, unexpectedly, by the blues great Furry Lewis). Another, older, actor appears to impersonate Elvis singing a song for his schoolmates. They bop and sway and snap their fingers as only amateur actors can. But now the film is ready for film clips and kinescopes of the real Elvis, glimpses that cut through the bogus stuff like so many bolts of lightning. The early performance scenes are simply electrifying, with an Elvis who is utterly confident of his talent, and yet amazed by it, too. He handles audiences expertly, pausing every so often to grin and marvel at their rapture - a rapture the movie's viewers are bound to share.
The film, which is none too frank about Elvis' problems, nonetheless closely chronicles his decline. The polite, bashful fellow who beams with pride when Ed Sullivan pronounces him 'a real decent fine boy' becomes flashy, bloated and crude. The Elvis whose face is so fresh and unguarded, whose expression reveals so much when the press asks him about his sweetheart or his mama, becomes a glassy eyed wreck. At the end of the film, in a scene whose irony is both too broad and too enormous for this film to contain, the pitifully deteriorated Elvis sings 'My Way', barely remembering the words. He dies six weeks later, and is brought to the grave by a procession of those Cadillacs he loved to buy. 'This Is Elvis' is such a grab bag it offers dozens of memorable moments, some of them exciting, some sad, some bizarre. Mr. Leo and Mr. Solt have unearthed rare home-movie footage of a boyish Elvis entertaining friends at his new mansion, of Elvis and Priscilla Presley clowning for the camera and of an older Elvis surrounded by his obedient rat pack. In contrast to this, there are the newsreels that prove Elvis never more revealing than when he tries to be discreet.
A couple of production numbers from his movies say as much about the climate of the country as they do about this one singer; the same is true of interviews by anti-rock-and-rollers protesting that this music is depravity. Even the television footage is remarkable, from Elvis' thrilling renditions of 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' and 'Hound Dog' to a nervous post-Army appearance with Frank Sinatra, to the Las Vegas comeback special that launched the jeweled-jumpsuit stage of his career. Even the close-up view of Elvis' belt rack speaks volumes, as do the glimpses of Graceland, his mansion. 'This Is Elvis' tells a gaudy, unforgettable story, and it's part of the story it tells. 'This Is Elvis' is rated PG ('Parental Guidance Suggested'). It contains some off-color language.
Buy This Is Elvis DVD.
This is Elvis was written, produced and directed by Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt ; director of photography, Gil Hubbs; edited by Bud Friedgen; original music score by Walter Scharf; released by Warner Bros. At the Sutton, Third Avenue and 57th Street. Running time: 101 minutes. This film is rated PG.
Elvis, Age 18 - David Scott
Elvis, Age 10 - Paul Boensch
3d Elvis, Age 42 - Johnny Harra
Vernon Presley - Lawrence Koller
Priscilla Presley - Rhonda Lyn
Gladys Presley - Debbie Edge
Dewey Phillips - Larry Raspberry
Bluesman . . . . . Furry Lewis
Minne Mae Presley - Liz Robinson
Elvis, Age 35 - Dana MacKay
Sam Phillips - Knox Phillips
Linda Thompson - Cheryl Needham
Ginger Alden - Andrea Cyrill
Bill Black - Jerry Phillips
Scotty Moore - Emory Smith
Director - Andrew Solt, Malcolm Leo
Screenwriter - Andrew Solt
Composer (Music Score) - Walter Scharf
Producer - Andrew Solt
Editor - Glenn Farr
Producer - David L. Wolper
Screenwriter - Malcolm Leo
Set Designer - Charlie Hughes
Cinematographer - Gil Hubbs
Editor - Bud Friedgen
Producer - Malcolm Leo