Baz Luhrmann becomes the latest filmmaker to take on the life and legacy of Elvis Presley and Austin Butler has a lot to live up to playing the poor Mississippi boy who became the first rock and roll superstar, starred in dozens of movies, and reinvented himself as the Vegas headliner and an artist singing for adult audiences.
With the 2022 Elvis hitting theaters, we thought you might enjoy a look back at the best of the real Elvis and the some of the best efforts of actors to try to bring the King back to life, at least on the screen.
Elvis Presley made over 30 feature films between Love Me Tender (1956), playing support to second-rate leading man Richard Egan, and Change of Habit (1969), where he played a hip inner-city doctor who teams up with nun Mary Tyler Moore. He became one of the biggest Hollywood moneymakers, and then became increasingly irrelevant as the sixties wore on and he wore out in blaze of vapid vehicles cranked out with a simple formula: colorful locations, pretty co-stars, a handful of sub-rate songs. That formula made hits out of G.I. Blues (1960) and Blue Hawaii (1961) and the Colonel wasn’t about to let Elvis’ ambitions—he adored Marlon Brando and wanted to be a new James Dean—get in the way of profits. But that’s not to say Elvis didn’t have his moments or his triumphs. Here are his five best films.
5 – “Loving You” (1955)
For his sophomore film, producer Hal Wallis and manager “Colonel” Tom Parker brought Elvis out of the supporting cast and into an upscale production. The show-biz musical about a country boy with a unique sound, swiveling hips, and rocking guitar style so forceful that he breaks strings on every guitar he attacks, is a streamlined and sanitized retake on the story of Elvis, with Lizabeth Scott taking over management duties from Parker with cold cunning and cool sex appeal. The national furor over his immoral music and suggestive moves is overcome in a manner that could only happen in the movies: a spirited reprise of “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do.” It’s his first color film and the best set of songs of any of his films, from “Teddy Bear,” and the bluesy “Mean Woman Blues” to the Leiber and Stoller numbers “Hot Dog” and the title ballad “Loving You.”
Not available to stream or rent on VOD at the time of posting, available on DVD (try your library system).
4 – “Viva Las Vegas” (1964)
The barely literate script, where down-on-his-luck race car driver Elvis loses his bankroll in a swimming pool stunt and is lured off course to pursue a girl, is as inconsequential as any of his nonsensical featherweight musicals. But with MGM musical specialist George Sidney at the helm, giving even the silliest numbers a dynamic missing from his other sixties song-fests, and Ann-Margret sparring with the King as his greatest spitfire of a romantic co-star ever, it’s easily the masterpiece of those disposable productions he knocked out with alarming speed. It’s all color and glamour and sexy fun. Elvis sings “Come On, Everybody” and makes Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” all his own while sex-kitten Ann-Margret whips up a storm with her TNT-packed go-go moves. She was the first person who threatened to upstage Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker made sure that a costar would never again made Elvis work for the spotlight in one of his movies.
3 – “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)
Elvis delivered his definitive screen appearance in this budget-minded black and white production, a dark reflection of the “Loving You” rise to fame. This time around, Elvis’ working class character lands in stir after a bar fight gone bad and emerges surly, hardened, and quick-tempered, but with a new-found gift for rocking cultivated by his cellmate (Mickey Shaughnessy), a jailbird version of the Colonel who manipulates the kid into signing an exclusive contract before he’s sprung. “It’s just the beast in me,” he explains to his idealistic new manager and love interest (Judy Tyler). The “Jailhouse Rock” set piece was Elvis’ favorite production number and remains his greatest big screen moment, a dynamic melding of modern dance, Broadway showpiece, and choreography designed around Elvis’ gyrating energy. He may not be much of an actor, but his attitude and surly anger do the job just fine.
2 – “Flaming Star” (1960)
Less an “Elvis film” than a western starring young Presley in a surprisingly well cast role, this lean frontier drama about race, identity, loyalty, and the bonds of family, offers one of his most impressive performances. Playing the mixed race son of a white rancher (John McIntire) and a Kiowa mother (Dolores Del Rio), his fraternal chemistry with Steve Forrest (playing his elder half-brother) is so understated it feels natural and his director Don Siegel brings out his character through body language and action, letting his angry silences and physical reactions carry his performance and his character. For the fans, he greases his hair back and flips up his collar for a few scenes and takes his shirt off in the third act, but otherwise the persona is absorbed into his character – his one song is essentially a family sing-along – for a quietly effective performance.
1- “King Creole” (1958)
With a bold script, a powerful cast (Dean Jagger as his servile father, Walter Matthau as a New Orleans gangster, the surly Vic Morrow as a punk, and pre-“Addams Family” Caroline Jones as a reluctant femme fatale), and one of Hollywood’s greatest veterans, Michael Curtiz, to guide him, Elvis rises to the occasion of his fourth feature. He’s a natural, more attitude and impulse than complexity and nuance, as he burns through the role of a restless waterfront rebel who finds success playing the Bourbon Street clubs. Elvis is all focus and intent, but he loosens up as he belts out numbers like “Hard Headed Woman,” “Trouble,” and the theme song, while his opening tune, a bluesy, lazy duet with a street seller hawking “Crawfish,” sets his character perfectly. Elvis gave his all in his final film before reporting for induction and it’s the singer’s own favorite picture. Who am I to argue?
Streaming free on Hoopla, which is available through most public and college library systems.
“Colonel” Tom Parker (the rank was not even honorary, merely self-proclaimed) was a cagey promoter when it came to Elvis, launching him as a national phenomenon largely through television appearances and relaunching him over a decade later (after squandering his talent on increasingly soggy, silly films) in the same medium. His TV performances remain among definitive appearances.
5 – “Aloha From Hawaii” (1973)
On January 14, 1973, Elvis Presley strode on stage at the Honolulu International Center in his white jumpsuit to the strains of the “2001” defining theme “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” launched into “See See Rider,” and made television history. The live concert was beamed by satellite all over the world. Except, ironically, the United States, where the broadcast was delayed for 3 months, trimmed and topped off with four additional songs performed after the audience left, solely for the cameras. It’s not Elvis at his best necessarily – the rehearsal concert (also available on DVD) is better – but it was his last blast of television glory.
Not available to stream or rent on VOD at the time of posting, available on DVD.
4 – “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is” (1970)
The definitive portrait of Elvis the Vegas headliner follows the King through his 1970 summer engagement in Las Vegas from backstage bustle to box-office hustle to 27 stage numbers. The original release of Elvis’ rebirth as a Vegas showman was a concert rockumentary interspersed with interviews, backstage material, and a wealth of footage featuring the King in rehearsal. The 2001 home video revision jettisons the fan interviews for more music, all for the better, but the rehearsals are still a highlight, where Elvis jokes and laughs with an ease that stand in sharp contrast to his mumbling on-stage banter. Is the King nervous in his live comeback? Only between songs, it seems: he pours sweat in a passionate performance, but when he sings it sounds effortless.
3 – “This Is Elvis” (1981)
The 1981 documentary begins with awkward recreations of Elvis’ early life but soon turns into an excellent introductory portrait of the country boy turned rock and roll phenomenon and his rollercoaster ride to superstardom and isolation. Elvis narrates from beyond the grave (courtesy of impersonator by Ral Donner) the rich selection of TV and film clips: from home movies and newsreel footage and press conferences to his legendary TV appearances and clips from the best (and worst) of his movies. It also features my favorite piece of Elvis arcana: growling “Witchcraft” while Frank Sinatra croons “Love Me Tender” as a swing-a-ding-ding number. It was expanded for home video version with even more priceless footage than the original theatrical version. For completists, co-director Andrew Solt gathered Elvis’ small screen appearances in a trio of TV specials (collected on “Elvis: The Great Performances Box Set”), but they lack the focus and shape of this well-made (if somewhat timid) portrait.
2 – “The ’68 Comeback Special” (1968)
More than ten years after his legendary Ed Sullivan appearances and eight years after his last live performance, Elvis reinvented himself in just over an hour (sans commercials) of network television, strutting onstage with a confidence and fire unseen since the fifties, and a new-found maturity never before seen. He tours through his high energy standards, gamely plunges into campy production numbers (watch for his karate kicks in the “Guitar Man” sequence), and offers his gospel-infused answer to the folk song pleas for a better world in his the climactic number, “If I Can Dream.” “It’s been a long time baby,” he mumbles to his audience between pieces of a medley. It’s more than that: we’ve witnessed the phoenix-like resurrection of the dynamic, modern Elvis Presley.
1 – “One Night With You” (1985)
The King’s finest post-1950s hours are found in the 1968 jam sessions with original guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D.J. Fontana, and friends, recorded on front of a live audience for “The ’68 Comeback Special.” Only portions of the two live sessions were included on the original special, but in 1985 these complete Elvis unplugged sessions were released and they live on as his greatest preserved performances. He’s relaxed and easy-going, making music and cracking wise with his friends, recapturing the spontaneity and joy of making music heard in those early Sun Sessions. The King has never looked more relaxed or at ease as he jams, chats, and jams some more as he rocks the night away and reminds the world that he’s still the once and future King.
Not available to stream or rent on VOD at time of posting. Available on DVD (now out of print).
“Pretenders to the Throne” – The Best Elvis Impersonators on the screen
Since his death in 1977, Elvis Presley has been portrayed on the big screen and the small screen by a host of actors, from Don Johnson in “Elvis and the Beauty Queen” to Val Kilmer in “True Romance.” Here are the best of the men who would be The King.
3 – Jonathan Rhys-Myers in “Elvis: The Miniseries” (2005)
The British actor with overripe lips has the casual sneer down cold and he works hard at giving us the contradictions that Peter Guralnick brilliantly explored his biography, but he never quite gets the soul under the torment.
2 – Michael St. Gerard in “Elvis: The Series” (1990)
In this short-lived but lovingly produced series, St. Gerard gives us the nice, polite Memphis boy before his national fame, a modest young man as surprised as anyone else when his R&B/rockabilly performances incite audiences in small club and country fair performances.
Sadly unavailable on home video at time of posting.
1 – Kurt Russell in “Elvis: The Movie” (1979)
Kurt Russell (who kicked Elvis in the shins onscreen in “It Happened At the World’s Fair”) is the king of Kings in John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie. His drawl is dead on yet unforced and his stage performances seem to channel the spirit of Elvis without actually mimicking his moves, but more importantly, he shows us then man in the bubble, trapped by the very success that has made his fame and fortune.
Special Mention: Bruce Campbell in “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002)
Senior citizen Elvis battles a mummy in a retirement home with little more than a walker and creaky kung fu moves! Campbell is brilliant as a sad suggestion of a dethroned King who drove away everyone he loved and now rots away in near solitude while the world is convinced he’s dead (well, not everyone). “Hail to the King, baby.”
Streams free on Hoopla, which is available through most public and college library systems.