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This Is Elvis is a 1981 documentary film directed by Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo. This is a strange film - sometimes brilliant and sometimes terrible - but fascinating at times and chock full of archive and video from the Presley estate. It's a mixture of real documentary and fake documentary with some dramatic licence taken at times. The film presents some parts of Presley's life with actors playing him at different ages but these sequences are mercifully kept to a minimum and for the most part you have a vast amount of footage of the real thing. It attempts to tell the whole story of his life in words, images and songs. There is some narration by Ral Donner pretending to be Elvis and commenting on his own life and times from beyond the grave if you will. Donner was a pop star who sounded exactly like Elvis when he spoke in real life. Must have come from the same area I presume. It's not ideal but you can see why they felt they needed to do this. "If only I could've seen what was happening to me, I would have done something about it." I wonder if the makers of the feature film Bubba Ho-Tep ever watched This Is Elvis? I think they must have done. There were actually two different cuts of this film and on this disc you get both versions to view and contrast. The shorter cut (102 minutes) moves along a lot more quickly and has the advantage of being less rambling but the longer cut is more of a complete experience and is nearly 40 minutes longer. Definitely the one to watch. The longer version was trimmed and then thrown in the cupboard for many years because it contained certain things that in hindsight they probably wished they hadn't put in the film in the first place. A bloated and drug addled Elvis near the end of his life (I think he died about a month later) completely forgetting the words to Are You Lonesome Tonight? on stage and also a few scenes where Elvis and his road crew seem unaware they being filmed and make some crude comments about what they got up to the previous night.
You get this stuff all put back in the longer version - plus Elvis performing several more songs on various television shows and specials and also some of the Hawaii Aloha special (which is glossed over in the shorter edit and limited to a shot of him grandly arriving in a helicopter in suitably Elvis fashion). The film begins with Elvis arriving home at Graceland on the last night of his life. An actor is playing Elvis (seen from behind) and Ral Donner provides the voiceover (Rhonda Lynn also pretends to be Priscilla Presley through narration in other parts of the film). In the longer version of This Is Elvis you also get some footage here of his body being taken to hospital. Reminded me very much of the news coverage when Michael Jackson died. I expect the death of Elvis was probably an even bigger deal at the time. We then jump back to 1946 and begin a chronological trawl through the life of Elvis with a mixture of faked interviews, dramatic scenes and newsreels, and the real thing in many many great clips. The young Elvis is played by a child actor looking like something out of Huckleberry Finn and we get images of real dancing outlaw country. People living in shacks and squirrel for dinner. It's rather cliched but then Elvis did come from very humble rural origins. You have to wait a while to get to the real Elvis but it's worth the wait when we reach the fifties and the film begins to chronicle his television appearances. If there is a clip from Elvis on television they will often play the whole song too which is a nice touch. Most notable are his appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. Elvis created something of a moral panic with his hip swaying antics at the time but we see Sullivan telling (a slightly embarrassed and bashful looking) Elvis he's a nice young boy and he doesn't believe all the nonsense written about him. It was an important gesture by Sullivan although I'm sure he was aware how popular Elvis was and generally wanted to swim with the tide and get him back on the show.
The film is a grab bag of different clips and the authentic and staged but the overall effect is good and certainly absorbing if a bit weird at times with the staged sequences. The bizarre atmosphere that permeates parts of This Is Elvis is strangely enjoyable at times though. It's like a film that is both good and bad but ends up being more good than bad when contemplated as a complete experience. You do of course get to see the gradual transformation of the young pretty Elvis into the sweaty and overweight glasseyed Elvis who became something of a parody of himself. I must admit though that I like white jewel encrusted jumpsuit Elvis too. Always makes me smile when I see him doing kung fu kicks in a cape. You actually get film of Elvis tangling with his instructor at his karate school. I think he was a black belt or something. He was probably the only one in the dojo with a pair of sunglasses on. One thing the film does well with all the backstage footage from concerts is give you a sense of how mad and bonkers it must have been to be Elvis, especially towards the end of his life when he was like a living icon and had everyone wanting to touch the hem of his cloth. He literally had to be smuggled out of a building after a show and bundled straight into a car that was ready to speed off. Elvis' control freak manager, the powerful "Colonel" Tom Parker, served as "technical advisor" on the film so he isn't criticised at all. The narration by Donner as Elvis talking about how kind and wise he is instead. When the film moves to the decline of Elvis it glosses over much of the druggy stuff and groupies but does (surprisingly) include footage of the press conference by Sonny West and Dave Hebler. They were two former bodyguards who were fired and now felt the need to go public to "save" Elvis.
They wrote a book and said he was a complete mess. Addicted to "uppers", "downers", and prescription drugs. His diet probably didn't do him any favours either. Elvis was eating to fill the holes in his life. For comfort. He looks huge in some of the concerts. Hardly surprising given his fondness for cheeseburgers, peanut butter sandwiches fried in butter and French loaves filled with bacon and jam. You get a lot of clips from the all the films Elvis made too in a big montage. They were terrible films but the clips are fun anyway and make the pictures look more appealing in isolation. You also get portions of the 1968 comeback special and his triumphant opening in Las Vegas not long after. I never quite understood why he was constantly playing shows in Las Vegas to the point of exhaustion but I suppose his manager was to blame. He should have toured the world now and again instead given how wide and far his fanbase was spread. There are lots of home videos too - Elvis and Priscilla's wedding, Lisa Marie and Graceland. I think the most effective montage comes at the end when we get clips of Elvis at different points of his life to the strains of him singing My Way. One obvious problem with This Is Elvis today of course is that there have subsequently been gazillions of other Elvis documentaries. This film is hardly unique now and would have seemed a lot fresher in 1981. You've probably seen better Elvis documentaries on the television loads of times by now. Still, it is entertaining and absorbing and Elvis fans and connoisseurs of strange cinema should enjoy it. At the time of writing you can buy This Is Elvis for about £20. I'd wait for a better deal to be honest. And now, if you'll please excuse me, I'm off to find my white jumpsuit and a vegetarian cheeseburger.