Miniseries introduces him to newfans, but it's far from all right, mama
If you take CBS's word, little in pop culture is of more interest than Elvis Presley. We're all shook up about the King. Forget about the fact that Elvis Presley Enterprises is shrewdly re-asserting itself in the market, since Lisa Marie Presley recently sold most of her father's estate. Forget about the fact that CBS is pumping two Presley events, the two-part miniseries ''Elvis" and next week's documentary ''Elvis by the Presleys," to help win May sweeps.
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Manufacturing interest is an art, though, and you have to hand it to Presley Enterprises, which just launched a webcam view from Elvis's Graceland bedroom. Now is the time not only for squeezing the remaining drops of interest out of Elvis fans but for extending the Elvis brand to a generation that wasn't born when the King died in 1977. Now's the time to introduce the power of the pelvis to a generation for whom anything short of an exposed nipple is boring.
''Elvis," which premieres Sunday night at 9 on Channel 4, won't knock the socks off either those already in love with Elvis or those who should be. The miniseries, which concludes Wednesday, lacks the electric performance essential to any great biopic, the model of which is still Judy Davis in ''Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows." It simply doesn't feature a leading actor able to bring new dimensions to a familiar public image. That the ''Elvis" script is a glut of clichés isn't the big problem; biopics are by definition doomed to reenact the highlights of a life shallowly. But without a galvanizing center, the movie is all just bioshtick.
Casting Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Elvis was a bold move, and it misfires. Rhys Meyers's face looks like the young Presley's; yet there's a British glam aspect to it that leaves no room for Presley's backwoods innocence. Rhys Meyers has a hard physiognomy and an ironic eye that seem worlds away from the King. Rather than looking like a man who's discovering stardom, he projects the knowingness of someone who's been there already. His Southern accent is excellent, and he holds the screen during his lip-synched performances of master recordings. He does the best he can, but he's the wrong actor for the part.
''Elvis" traces Presley's career from its early days in Memphis to his 1968 comeback, almost 10 years before his death. Since it's an authorized movie, it doesn't go near the King's sad final days, the jumpsuit years. The focus is on Elvis's rise, his bond with his mother, his courtship of Priscilla (a bland Antonia Bernath), and his loyalty to friends. There are nods to his growing substance abuse and depression. But generally the movie enacts the familiar ''Behind the Music" arc minus the tragic fall. It's a corporate product that resists the very thing that made Elvis: controversy.
Camryn Manheim brings interesting shadings to Elvis's mother, as she craves his success and fears its consequences. And Randy Quaid is effective as Colonel Tom Parker, who is portrayed as the villain. He exudes snakelike egotism as he packages Elvis for the masses, and his eyes betray contempt at Presley's desire to be a respected actor. Parker understands the power of bad press and that public shock at Elvis will make him a star. So he discourages his boy from aspirations that might help him grow as an artist and as a man. He makes Elvis, but he also breaks his spirit.
Late in ''Elvis," Rose McGowan shows up as Ann-Margret, distracting Presley during his romance with Priscilla. It's a silly detour that fails to create drama, and McGowan hardly conjures a sense of the actress. Like too much of ''Elvis," the scenes don't bring us closer to the man who forever changed pop. They merely serve as filler in a sweeps TV movie that needs to take up two nights of prime time.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.