Gosh, better be careful how I cover CBS’ two-part mini-series Elvis. I don’t want to give anything away…oh, that’s right, we know everything there is to know about the King by now. We’ve dissected Presley so obsessively, for so many decades, that I can’t help but imagine the poor guy rolling over in his grave and uttering a dusty ”Enough already.”
So if you’re traveling down the bumpy Presley road once again, for crying out loud, get creative. Elvis is due for the kind of zigzag treatment given last year to Peter Sellers in HBO’s The Life & Death of Peter Sellers — a mind-trippy commentary on the madness and endless manufactured bustle that attend fame.
Instead, Elvis is a stolid cautionary tale about The Price of Fame, complete with hackneyed lines like ”The higher I climb, the lonelier it gets” and ”No one knows how empty I feel.” Filmed in shadows and stillness, peopled with worriers and sad sacks, Elvis has sucked almost all the joy out of Presley’s stunning, outsize life.
Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham) plays Elvis from high school wannabe to worldwide phenomenon to washout, with the series ending with Elvis’ 1968 comeback TV special. Rhys Meyers has made an admirable study of Presley: His pelvic twitches are just so, his Mississippi-to-Memphis drawl 86 percent solid, and, with that cupid’s bow mouth, he looks so much like Presley it’s occasionally disorienting. (The actor’s lip-synching to the King’s tunes lends the concert montages an accidentally festive, karaoke vibe. Which is good because Elvis loves montages.)
If Rhys Meyers lacks Presley’s sleepy sexiness and sense of mischief, so does most of Elvis, which suffers from its own hindsight self-seriousness. Elvis’ protective mother, Gladys (Camryn Manheim), is the not-so-hushed voice of doom: She weeps over her boy’s potential success, worries about his realized success, and, feeding chickens and slurping beer at Graceland, proclaims the Presleys were ”born for misery and pain.” (”That’s All Right Mama” apparently was not taken to heart.) Presley’s manager, ”Colonel” Tom Parker (Randy Quaid), is big and Faustian — at one point, he’s literally flame-framed — a nefarious baked potato who demands Presley’s complete loyalty in exchange for fame, fortune, and, you know, ultimate destruction. Even his romance with wife-to-be Priscilla (Antonia Bernath) feels more like a series of gee-it’s-hard-to-date-a-teen hassles than anything resembling love.
Occasionally, pure now-you’re-cookin’ moments filter in: Presley, warned by a God-fearing judge not to let loose his pelvic wiggle on stage, remains motionless…until he aims his pinkie at the perfumed audience and wriggles it in a gesture that feels surprisingly, delightfully obscene. But these moments are rare. The much-tended gloom and portent — the guns, the TV obsession, the pills and more pills — never pay off, since the series ends nine years before Presley’s heart gave out from the drugs and the work. No fat Elvis, no pistol-smashed TVs, no Nixon. It’s the dramatic equivalent of telling someone you’ve got an important secret and then saying ”Never mind….” Two words which nicely sum up Elvis.