Every generation seems to get a TV Elvis. Kurt Russell was the first and probably best, in 1979, followed by Don Johnson, Dale Midkiff, Rob Youngblood, Rick Peters and now Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who has the young rocker down pat, but falters — as does the script — when “Elvis” tries to get inside the King’s head. First night, mini delivers the story oft-told about Presley, from teenage R&B fan to newly drafted Army recruit, getting the facts straight without veering too far from a chronological re-telling. Night two is more adventurous than the opener — and most Elvis tell-alls –attempting to interpret Presley’s motivations during his mid-’60s decline.
Sparked by a finely textured perf by Camryn Manheim as Elvis’ mother Gladys, there’s a sense after the first half that CBS’ “Elvis” is going where every other depiction of the King has headed. Instead, it reaches deep into his sexual relationship with Ann-Margret (Rose McGowan), and his dissatisfaction with manager Colonel Tom Parker (Randy Quaid); touches on his spiritual curiosity and early dependence on pills; and closes with his realization he’s not the star he once was.
How Elvis’ isolation ultimately affected him is hinted at but only partially explored — failing to develop the “Elvis behind closed doors” theme, which could make for a fine psychological yarn, even if it would rely on considerable conjecture.
Mini is bookended by Elvis’ 1968 “Comeback Special,” his fear of appearing in front of an audience for the first time in seven years opening things on Sunday, and his triumphant perf of “If I Can Dream” serving as the Wednesday closer.
Action zips to 1952 Memphis, the Presleys living in severe poverty, although Elvis is making his way across the tracks to the black neighborhood to buy records, clothes and pomade, and see performers such as Wynonnie Harris.
Elvis’ dedication to his mother is amplified with a tender touch from the actors and director James Sadwith. Eventually, though, used in nearly every emotional crisis, that tenderness turns melancholic and heavyhanded. And when Presley breaks up with girlfriend Dixie (a spunky perf from Jennifer Rae Westley), the story turns maudlin, as it does when Gladys dies.
As Presley’s career builds — recording “That’s All Right” for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, which becomes a local hit — he eyes an acting career, hoping to be another James Dean or Marlon Brando (though Elvis fans will tell you he really aspired to be like Tony Curtis).
Rhys Meyers has young Presley down pat — the affecting, nearly blank, stare, the lip curl, the smile, the hip shake, the guitar playing — but the accent teeters on impersonation. He does quite well adding the narcoleptic and short-tempered qualities of drug addiction to his portrayal, and he stays sexy and charming through the entire four hours.
Quaid plays Parker, the man who makes it all happen — the tours, the movies, the millions of dollars — like a galoot fresh out of finishing school, and Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script reminds over and over that his background is as a carney.
Parker forges an alliance with Elvis and Vernon Presley (Robert Patrick) that the King can never bring himself to break; beyond Elvis’ continued lip service to loyalty, the logic that cements the Parker-Presley relationship is never fully exhumed.
Municipalities start to give Presley and his music the heave-ho, and Parker has Elvis turn his attention to Hollywood and the movies. The King then joins the Army.
Part two opens with Gladys dying in Memphis. Seemingly moments after her funeral, Elvis and Vernon are at each other’s throats (that loyalty issue again), and Elvis heads back to Germany, where he soon meets the 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Antonia Bernath). He courts her properly, with parental meetings, making sure she doesn’t violate her curfew and, despite her lust, never has sex with her.
Bernath is realistic as a ninth-grader, but less credible as an 18-year-old. It feels odd, though, that she doesn’t possess the eye-catching beauty of the real Priscilla, a head-turner especially after her high school days. Similarly, McGowan doesn’t capture the kittenish sex appeal of Ann-Margret.
“Elvis” then starts to get into areas that haven’t been seen in other telepics — his sexual fling with Ann-Margret, frustration with his film work and a desire to be considered for “West Side Story” (Parker said no), plus his interest in opera and, later, spiritual doctrine.
Script emphasizes Elvis’ bipolar swings — he’s either obsessed or upset that he’s being questioned — and he gets through everything, except the dependency on uppers and downers, relatively unscathed. When there are consequences to Presley’s actions, there’s nothing his Memphis Mafia won’t handle.
Mini’s claim to fame amid the sea of Elvis made-fors is that it’s the first to use original Presley recordings. It’s a treat, just as it was in “Ray,” to see “Blue Moon of Kentucky” evolve and hear his hits as if they were being recorded for the first time. Rhys Meyers is a credible lip-syncher for most of the night, but conveys none of Presley’s reclaiming of his place in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon during the mini’s “If I Can Dream” crescendo, a re-enactment of one of TV’s most powerful rock performances.
Showbiz biopics often invent old Variety front pages with headlines that would never pass muster among the editors. “Elvis” is no different, but it does have one standout scene: Presley shooting at beer bottles and then using a front page for target practice. He has good aim.