Thursday, April 25, 2013

Heath Holland On...The Kurt Russell/Elvis Connection

by Heath Holland
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my new appreciation for Elvis Presley and his movies; a few weeks before that, I wrote about how I missed the movie stars that I grew up watching. This week I’ve discovered a cool connection between one of my favorite movie stars and my newfound love of Elvis: the Kurt Russell/Elvis Connection!

The Kurt Russell/Elvis Connection is a little bit like the Rainbow Connection, only there are no lovers, no dreamers, and no me. I first noticed it while watching Elvis’ 1963 film It Happened At The World’s Fair. Elvis and Gary Lockwood (who guest starred in the original Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) play crop-duster pilots who find their airplane taken away due to Lockwood’s gambling problem. They have to make enough money to pay of the debts to get their plane back and end up at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington. Elvis falls in love with a nurse (Diane Warren) who works at the fair’s medical facility and spends most of the movie trying to woo her. Also, we see Yvone Craig a few years before she would play Batgirl on the Batman TV show and a green skinned Orion slave girl on Star Trek (two Star Trek connections in the same movie!)

At one point in the movie, Elvis finds himself looking for a reason to go see this nurse he has the hots for, knowing she won’t give him the time of day unless he has an actual injury. He sees a kid passing by and pays the little boy to kick him in the shin, thus giving him an injury to get his sweet swerve on with the nurse. This little boy is an eleven-year old Kurt Russell in what I believe is his first big screen performance. He kicks Elvis, and then says “Adults. They’re all nuts!” Awww.
The next time Kurt Russell pops up in connection to Elvis is when he played The King in 1979’s Elvis, a three hour TV biopic directed by John Carpenter, which was also the first time that John Carpenter and Kurt Russell worked together. There is an awful lot that's interesting about this movie, the first being that it’s directed by John Carpenter the year after he made Halloween. Carpenter must have been very impressed with Russell, because they’ve collaborated many times. I didn’t even know this thing existed until a few weeks ago when I stumbled across a listing for the UK-only Blu-ray. I’d probably read about it before, but because Elvis was not on my radar until recently, I guess it went right over my head. It’s hard to ignore the significance of this project in relation to these two people.

Russell is pretty great as Elvis. His ability to channel all of Elvis’ moves, his mannerisms, the way he talked, the way one side of his mouth curled up when he sang, and even the way he shimmied on the stage is uncanny. It feels like a lot of time went into getting it just right. And because it’s Kurt Russell, it’s FUN to watch him. On one hand, it’s a great performance because he completely transforms into Elvis; on the other, there’s still enough of Kurt Russell there to remind you why WE LOVE KURT RUSSELL. He’s awesome at playing the young Elvis of 1955 differently from the Elvis of 1962, and finally the dark, moody Elvis of 1969.
The downside is that the movie is periodically very boring. It didn’t need to be a three hour event. If it had been two, there’s enough material here to be entertaining and to move at a steady clip, but that extra hour really slows things down. And while it is a John Carpenter project, it doesn’t often feel like one. Because it was made for television, most of the tropes that we now associate with the director aren’t on display here. It feels very workmanlike: it’s competently directed, but there’s no directorial flair. And that’s probably exactly how it went down. I’m sure Carpenter loves Elvis and that this was a labor of love, but it doesn’t hold up to what he was doing in actual cinemas at the time. John Carpenter is one of the fathers of a certain type of film, so as a product of John Carpenter, Elvis is merely as curiosity. But as a Kurt Russell vehicle, it’s a revelation.

Fifteen years later, Kurt Russell would once again do his best Elvis impression when he lent his voice to Forrest Gump in 1995. We never really see Elvis’ face in his cameo appearance in the movie, just his back and his arm, then one out of focus shot of him from a distance. That was an actor named Peter Dobson, but the voice was an uncredited Kurt Russell. It’s a brief contribution to the Kurt Russell/Elvis Connection, but a significant one.
The last connection is also the most recent, when Russell starred alongside Kevin Costner in 2001’s 3000 Miles To Graceland. He plays a criminal who has just gotten out of prison and is planning to rob a casino hosting an Elvis convention. As part of their costume, the robbers all wear a different variation of the Elvis jumpsuit (or “onesie,” as my wife calls it).

3000 Miles To Graceland is very, very bad, but I find myself returning to it every few years. It’s like a time capsule of 2001, complete with a rap/rock soundtrack, flashy, nausea-inducing editing, and a ridiculous, crappy CGI intro of two metallic scorpions fighting to the death. It’s obnoxious and trashy, but, hey, sometimes I like trashy.

I’ve found two different estimated budgets: IMDB says the film cost 42 million dollars, but Wikipedia says it cost 62 million. I’m more inclined to believe Wikipedia’s number, because this movie either shoots or blows up EVERYTHING. It’s like a little boy with a bag of fireworks and zero adult supervision. That cool gas station in the desert with the World War II-era replica airplane? Blow it up. The casino where the heist takes place? Just destroy it completely. I can’t figure out what possessed the powers-that-be at Warner Bros. to give a music video director with only one film credit to his name that sort of budget. This is a hard R-rated story of double crossing criminals, a psychopathic Kevin Costner (America was not ready to see Costner murder people left and right and drop F-bombs in every sentence), and mostly annoying characters. As a result, it bombed big time.

The main reason I keep coming back to 3000 Miles To Graceland is the cast. This movie has so many recognizable faces in it; in addition to Russell and Costner, we also have Courtney Cox, Kevin Pollack, Thomas Haden Church, Christian Slater, David Arquette, Bokeem Woodbine, John Lovitz, Howie Long, and, because he apparently happened to be on the set that day, Ice-T. Ice-T’s involvement makes zero sense, because all he does is fly into a gunfight hanging upside down, get shot, and promptly die.
But let’s get back to Russell. I may be reading into things, but the first time we meet Kurt Russell in 3000 Miles To Graceland, he catches a sneaky kid stealing the tire caps off of his 1959 Cadillac. When Russell yells at the kid, the little boy kicks him in the shin, just like Kurt Russell kicked Elvis in the shin way back in 1963! I mean, maybe it’s a coincidence, but if the director wrote that in intentionally, then I tip my hat.

For most of the movie, the Kurt Russell/Elvis Connection is thin, with Russell just dressing like Elvis for the heist, wearing a slick pompadour throughout the film, and having a general '50s cool about him. But just in case we didn’t get it, when the movie is over, the entire end credits roll to video footage of Kurt Russell, fully dressed as Elvis, lip syncing to “Such A Night.” He does all the moves, the karate, the hip swivels, EVERYTHING. So there it is again, Kurt Russell doing Elvis like we thought only Elvis could. In fact, Kurt Russell may be the best Elvis impersonator I’ve ever seen. I mean…maybe it’s comforting for him to know that he could always moonlight in Vegas as an Elvis impersonator and still bring home the bacon for Goldie Hawn. Not that Goldie Hawn needs his help. She’s got Bird On A Wire money.

It’s pretty neat that this actor, who has had so many hits of his own, can also be connected so clearly to Elvis Presley. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. With my new appreciation of Elvis and my long-running love of Kurt Russell, it’s just one more reason to love them both.


  1. Heath,

    I vaguely remember a story from a Gary Lockwood Q&A (because who HASN'T been to one of those) where he said him and Elvis, in real life, were fighting over a girl. As if she had no other option, they drove her to Elvis' house and made her choose who got her. She went with Gary Lockwood.

    On your Elvis tour, are you going to hit up Lilo & Stitch? That movie is underrated.

    1. That is insane in the membrane, Adam. So Gary Lockwood and Elvis are at this girl's house...they make her choose (and she chooses Gary) we, for one second, not think that Elvis didn't "get" her right after Gary? Maybe even in the same room? Woo, it's hot in here.

      *opens window*

      I hit up Lilo and Stitch the first time around and I enjoy it. I will tell you that it does not work as a segment of Disney On Ice and that whoever though it did should be forced to have "Ohana Means Family" tattooed on their forehead.

      At the rate that I'm going through everything starring Elvis and inspired by Elvis, I'll be getting to Lilo and Stitch again in 2018. What I'm saying is, I'm burning out. But I do like what Lilo and Stitch tried to do as far as breaking free from the Disney fairy tale mold. I think The Emperor's New Groove does it better, but I like both of them. Minor classics, I say.

  2. Check out the (underrated) comedy Used Cars. Kurt Russell's character has a statuette of the King and cocks a finger at him.

    1. And Robert Zemeckis, director of "Used Cars," also directed "Forrest Gump"... 'the circle of life!'