In a tribute to Elvis Presley that aired on Turner Classic Movies, Kurt Russell says that “an Elvis movie is always worth watching because of Elvis.” This insight gets at a core truth about a much maligned and mostly dismissed body of work. From his big-screen debut in 1956 to his final film in 1969, the rock-and-roll superstar appeared in thirty-one feature films, and partly due to the breakneck pace at which they were made (about three a year), some of them are flimsy. But most were, in fact, box-office hits, and almost every one of them brims with Elvis’s charisma and humor. He was a unique cinematic figure, with a self-invented movie persona all his own.
More than half a century removed from their original context, these films can be appreciated on their own terms—and for the rare thing Elvis achieved with them. Few stars can single-handedly justify a film’s existence, in the way Kurt Russell (who appeared on-screen alongside Elvis as a kid and went on to play him in a 1979 television movie) described. John Wayne could be compelling in any film he was in, but he contributed to a preexisting genre—the western—and without him, those movies would still make sense. Elvis, on the other hand, created his own genre, and the genre died with him. Perhaps the closest antecedent to the “Elvis movie” is the on-screen collaboration of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis: sixteen films that all created their own self-contained reality and traded on the audience’s familiarity with the stars’ personas. Martin and Lewis were a duo, though. Elvis stood alone.
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