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  This Is Elvis Hail To The King
Year: 1981
Director: Malcolm Leo, Andrew Solt
Stars: Elvis Presley, Ral Donner, David Scott, Paul Boensch III, Johnny Harra, Joe Esposito, Linda Thompson, Priscilla Presley, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, George Hamilton, Bob Hope, Colonel Tom Parker, Scotty Moore, Sammy Davis Jr, Dolores Hart
Genre: Documentary, Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: One night in August of 1977, Elvis Presley returned home to Graceland and retired in the early hours of the morning, but the next time anyone saw him, he would be dead of a heart attack at the age of 42. The outpouring of grief across America and the world was astonishing, with countless fans gathering at the star's home to pay their last respects, but it took a while for the truth of his situation to come out. To examine that life, we must go back to his early years when he was growing up in Tennessee, living in a shack and spending his spare time wandering in and around his home town, discovering the blues...

This Is Elvis was the official story from Presley's estate, but although many were expecting a hagiography that was not the whole account as directors Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt, the latter especially by that time no stranger to the benefits of archive footage, managed to create a work with more balance than something from the grasping hands of Colonel Tom Parker might have led one to believe. Some call this the Mondo Elvis movie, such was its assembly of a wide variety of old footage of The King of Rock 'n' Roll mounted in a selection of recreations with actors pretending to be him and those in his life, though thankfully that did not dominate, and was unavoidable when no footage of Elvis existed before the age of twenty-one.

What rankled with some however, was the narration, not by a professional voiceover artist but by singer and erstwhile Elvis impersonator Ral Donner, wherein he assumed the King's identity and purported to be the deceased telling his own story from beyond the grave. Obviously considering how he ended up being morbid was hard not to give in to, but hearing a not bad impression telling us what the subject was thinking made for a curious experience, though you did get used to it after a while. That was thanks to the interest generated by the footage that Leo and Solt had unearthed, from concert performances to interviews to behind the scenes home movies, all highly captivating for fans, and even interesting to non-fans.

As Presley was one of the most famous men who ever lived, his every move appeared to be recorded once he hit the big time, and although it wasn't quite that extensive, there was more than enough for a hundred minute documentary. Nevertheless, to flesh out the public's role in this the directors invented fake vox pops with actors assuming the roles of his followers and detractors, which could be distracting, not least because when we saw the real thing the fact that those early detractors had been so unapologetically racist towards Presley for popularising what they saw as offensively black music was a disturbing reminder of how divisive rock 'n' roll had been, and in many ways continued to be in its myriad forms down progressive decades. All through this, Elvis comes across as bemused by his success, simply seeing himself as a singer of the sounds he loved.

There are those who will tell you the sixties ruined him, as he was drafted into the Army - naturally the Samson-esque shearing of his quiff by the barber is included - and proceeded to star in a run of increasingly silly movies rather than continue to innovate, but the film found aspects of the middle part of his career very attractive, with the 1968 television comeback special a benchmark of an artist rediscovering his lust for life and his audience with his enthusiastic performing and self-deprecating sense of humour. Yet then the seventies arrive, and we see a sharp decline: he is divorced from Priscilla, he takes to heavy duty doses of medication, he embarks on a punishing run of concerts without end or point other than keeping the cash rolling in. The final scenes where we see him telling dirty jokes, plainly out of it while demonstrating his beloved karate, or the last concert footage with Elvis bloated, rambling, sweating and a wreck of his former self are extremely sobering to see. So This Is Elvis had its car crash qualities, but was better than you might expect in light of its blessings of the Memphis Mafia.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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