'Elvis': No Mere Impersonation

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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

In "Elvis," Jonathan Rhys Meyers does for Elvis Presley what Jamie Foxx did for Ray Charles in "Ray."

He becomes the rock icon.

Rhys Meyers, best known from 2002's feel-good hit "Bend It Like Beckham," plays Elvis from 18 to 33, when the King made his now-fabled "'68 Comeback Special" television appearance. It's an Elvis portrayal that will have people buzzing.

Elvis, who would have turned 70 in January, was inimitable yet incessantly imitated. Rhys Meyers has the brooding beauty and electrically charged moves of the young Elvis down cold, and the 27-year-old Irish actor nails the rhythms and inflections of Elvis's distinctive Southern drawl. The singing voice was not a challenge -- "Elvis" is the first biopic that the Presley estate has allowed to use Elvis master recordings -- but Rhys Meyers seems particularly inspired in his lip- and hip-syncing.

Not especially Elvis-savvy before the film -- he was 21 days old when Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977 -- Rhys Meyers researched the role by watching Elvis documentaries, films and early TV appearances. According to director James Sadwith, "Jonny looked at all the interview footage that we had, he had a dialect coach from New Orleans, and he just put it all together and really took it home."

Yet Rhys Meyers insists he "didn't try to over-research."

"I tried to take the things that I was closest to in Elvis Presley and use those, make it as organic as possible to my own experiences," Rhys Meyers said. "He was a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi; I'm a poor boy from County Cork, Ireland. He bought his mama a house with the first big amount of money that he got, and so did I. He had a lot of insecurities, wasn't liked in school, felt uncomfortable, was a daydreamer -- and I had all these things."

All of the similarities may explain Rhys Meyers's remarkably empathetic performance, one that avoids lapsing into parody or mere impersonation while capturing both the sweetness and sex appeal of its central character.

In the four-hour miniseries, Rhys Meyers masters the inner Elvis, making palpable the humanity of the icon-in-the-making -- from the grinding poverty of his youth and the constant battles between his ambition and insecurity, to the complex relationships with the key people in his life. Those essential figures include father Vernon (Robert Patrick); the overprotective mother he adored, Gladys (Camryn Manheim); his domineering manager, Col. Tom Parker (Randy Quaid); and the young love of his life, Priscilla Beaulieu (Antonia Bernath).

There's plenty of music, of course, from the seminal Sun Records sessions in 1954 to the 1968 special, which ends with a powerhouse re-creation of "If I Can Dream."

Part 1 follows Elvis from his truck-driving days to his early recordings and concerts, his first encounters with his manager and escalating stardom, and it ends with Elvis being drafted into the Army. Part 2 centers on his service in Germany, his romance with Priscilla, his flop films and his stumbling career, which was revived by the '68 show.

Director Sadwith and writer Patrick Sheane Duncan are clearly after something beyond idol worship.

"Elvis" was made with the full cooperation of the Elvis Presley Estate, but it's hardly sugar-coated. It addresses the singer's abuse of prescription drugs (which began during his Army service, when soldiers were given amphetamines to keep them awake on long maneuvers); his casual womanizing, even after he wed the teenage Priscilla (Rose McGowan cameos as "Viva Las Vegas"-era fling Ann-Margret); and his ultimately corrosive acquiescence to Parker (wonderfully realized by Quaid).

During eight weeks of filming in New Orleans -- along with several days in Memphis for some exterior scenes with Presley's Graceland estate as a backdrop -- Rhys Meyers stayed in character, wearing Elvis's favorite aftershave and listening to Elvis songs on his iPod before each scene. Rhys Meyers even picked up some authentic Elvis garb at Lansky's clothing store at the Peabody Hotel -- Bernard Lansky being the career-long "Clothier to the King."

The makeover was so complete it bordered on uncanny. Yet like many people his age, Rhys Meyers's initial impression of Elvis was that of the overweight, jump-suited Las Vegas act who died at age 42.

"Now, of course, I have a huge appreciation," Rhys Meyers said. "There's lots of Elvis fanatics and Elvis fans who know everything about Elvis, but I know what it's like to be Elvis -- even for just that short period of time."

ELVIS

Sunday at 9 p.m., Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS

CBS also will air "Elvis by the Presleys" (Friday at 8 p.m.), which includes interviews with his former wife, Priscilla Presley, their daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, and never-before-seen TV footage and home movies.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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