This Is Elvis kicks off the Summer Under The Stars as TCM celebrates a different star every day during the month of August.
Kicking off the month with Elvis is a perfect way to also celebrate next week’s HBO Max launch of this summer’s Elvis biopic (Note: a publicist mentioned the HBO Max launch date in an email but it’s not listed anywhere in the August announcement). Some cuts of this film run just shy of two and a half hours. The HBO Max cut runs 1:41 in length. Judging from the TCM schedule for Monday, they’re playing the same cut, not the longer one. Once you get past the reenactment footage, the film becomes a solid look at Elvis. Unfortunately, this film starts in the minutes or hours leading up to the death of the King. A bit morbid, perhaps. At the same time, it also shows the devotion of his fans and how they came to Graceland in the hours that followed his passing.
The reenactment scenes are definitely a bit much. I mean, if you’re going to go that route, you may as well just make an outright biopic. After all they are basically recreating different periods of his life. I get wanting to make a documentary about the King of Rock and Roll but there are better ways at approaching the subject. In addition, Ral Donner stands in and provides the voiceover narration. But for what it’s worth, there is archival footage in the film that was rare and never-before-seen at the time of its release. This is a film that spans his entire life in docudrama format. After starting with his death, Leo and Solt turn their focus to Elvis’s beginnings before segueing to his rise in stardom and movie career. Both of which end up being placed on hold due to his military service.
Once the focus turns to his movie career, the documentary starts depending less and less on reenactment footage. It’s better to use archival footage if you ask me. There’s still the voiceover narration from Danner but I prefer the archival to the reenactment footage. But anyway, one cannot discuss his career without mentioning the 1968 Comeback Special. It’s a huge turning point and would also start the third act of his too-short-life. This concert paved the way for a long-term contract with the International Hotel for performances every year. Sadly, his drug addiction during this time period led to his downfall, especially his marriage to Priscilla Presley. But anyway, if you want to see more of a focus on his shows at the International Hotel, be sure to check out Elvis: That’s the Way It Is!
Watching footage of his final years will never not be depressing. He had so much talent and yet, he just let it all go to waste by becoming a drug addict. In footage shot a few weeks before his tragic passing, he’s still giving his all in his performance even if he’s visibly older on stage. Hearing him sing “My Way” while also knowing his end is a few weeks away is one of those moments that hurt.
Of course, one cannot make this documentary without discussing the backlash. Rock and Roll had its detractors during the 1950s. This backlash played a role in why he was filmed from the waist up during national TV appearances. And yet, this never stopped the fans from enjoying his work.
This Is Elvis is at its best when focusing on archival footage but this docudrama depends way too much on reenactment footage during the first half, for better or worse.
DIRECTORS/SCREENWRITERS: Malcolm Leo, Andrew Solt
NARRATORS: Ral Donner, Joe Esposito, Linda Thompson, Lisha Sweetnam, Virginia Kiser, Michael Tomack
FEATURING: Elvis Presley
Warner Bros. released This Is Elvis on April 4, 1981. Grade: 3.5/5
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