Yes, Elvis is alive. (Or don’t you read the Enquirer?) The question is: Is he still hot at the box office?
Perhaps Heartbreak Hotel will provide the answer. Oh, Elvis himself isn’t actually in this one; he’s played by David Keith. Keith does well enough, and he’ll have to do until the real Elvis comes out of hiding.
The film is set in 1972 and the premise is that a teenager (Charlie Schlatter) from a small Ohio town kidnaps Elvis Presley after a Cleveland concert and takes him home to cheer up his mom (Tuesday Weld). The kid doesn’t really like Elvis. He thinks The King has turned his back on his rock and roll roots, has sold his soul to Vegas.
Elvis doesn’t cotton none to this kind of talk. He washes the black dye out of his hair, cuts off those porkchop sideburns, and for a couple of days reverts back to the rockin’ rebel he once was.
This movie, written and directed by Spielberg protégé Chris Columbus (with the approval of the Presley estate) is a mostly dopey affair, predictable and contrived. Still, the thought of getting the opportunity to talk Elvis back into his original style of music is an appealing fantasy.
And it’s another fascinating testament to the way a single larger-than-life figure has taken hold of the public’s imagination. The boy from Tupelo who became King has been the subject of a torrent of speculation, souvenirs, paraphernalia, and devotion, to say nothing of his Messianic rise from the dead. (The enduring power of his voice sometimes gets lost in all this.)
He’s been dead only 11 years, but there have already been a brace of filmed versions of his life. John Carpenter’s TV movie, Elvis, has been the most satisfactory so far, with Kurt Russell turning in a precise impersonation of Presley. David Keith, best known as the buddy in An Officer and a Gentleman, is quite good; when he strides down a stairwell singing “Love Me” to Tuesday Weld, he has some uncanny moments. (Weld, that fine actress, did make a movie with the original Elvis, 1961’s Wild in the Country.)
Columbus knows his Elvis and scores some points. Elvis’s toadying coterie of yes-men is wickedly sketched (they call him “E”), the great man’s passion for cheeseburgers is noted, and the show stops for someone to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”
There’s still one test: What does Elvis think of this movie? You know he’s out there somewhere, renting a movie theater for a private, middle-of-the-night screening. Hope you enjoy it, King, and please come back soon.
First published in The Herald, September 1988
Oh yeah, Charlie Schlatter – this was just after 18 Again!, with George Burns. This was Columbus’s sophomore effort as director, after Adventures in Babysitting; next up was Home Alone. As for the mysterious career of Tuesday Weld, who turned down most of the female leads of the 1960s and 70s, this was yet another curious choice, although you can understand the appeal, in this case.