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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Eddie Presley
Eddie Presley
Tempe Entertainment // Unrated // June 1, 2004
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted June 12, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Elvis Presley is that most unusual of cultural phenomena, the dead celebrity that everyone - or at least a significant portion of the populace - wants to resurrect. Taken from the realm of the living before his time, this self-abusing embodiment of rock and roll's roots experience is inexplicably linked to the founding of a musical and cultural revolution, always over other entities who have more of a place in the pantheon than he (Little Richard, for one). Yet because he was the first to make race music palatable to the ignorant white bigots residing in America at the time, this hip swiveling son of a gun has become an icon for an entire realm of artistry, more so than true pioneers like The Beatles or Bob Dylan. So maybe this inseparable association with the beginnings of something significant and special can account for the number of fat freaks who run around Elks Clubs and dinner theaters mimicking his act. In the world of commercial clichés, the Elvis impersonator is right there with lounge singer and nightclub comic (not the brash brats of its brethren, stand-up) on the entertainment food chain, a representative of a desperate need to celebrate the talented with the tacky. No matter how realistic, how much they resemble the boy from Tupelo or make their voices resonate with the same Southern simmer, Elvis was a one of a kind and his imitators are sadly serious reality strugglers. Eddie Presley, star of the movie of the same name, is one such stardom savant. Stuck in Hollywood, hoping to revive his career as a carrier of the King's titanic torch with his one-man missive of well-polished poses and volcanic vocals, he's a determined man of vision. It's just too bad that the rest of the world has the odds stacked against him.

Eddie Presley (his real name a long unknown quantity – he had it legally changed years ago) used to be a successful restaurant owner before he got the calling...the passion to pretend to be his childhood idol, Elvis Presley. Wanting rock and roll, not tossing pizzas, to be his primary career arc, he quits food service (losing his wife, child and family members in the process) and headed out on the road, playing everywhere and anywhere with his ersatz impersonation of The King. But when he learns of Presley's untimely death, Eddie becomes lost. He has a nervous breakdown and spends some "downtime" in a "rest home" to recuperate. Upon release, he tries to get his life back in order.

Fast forward a few years and Eddie is living in a van in a horrible part of Hollywood. Surrounded by crime and abject squalor, Eddie works as a security guard to make a few bucks. He has several friends on the job, including an indivisible pair of buddies, Nick and Scooter, and a strange, stammering lady named Becky. But on the downside of the job is Supervisor West, a notorious hard-ass looking to report any unauthorized antics on the job. When Eddie is caught violating the rules, he is given a two-week suspension and his already dead-end life is thrown into disarray. His girlfriend, a distant waitress at a local cafe named Tyranny, has faith in her man. But Eddie seems lost without direction...that is, until Doc, a club owner, comes calling.

Eddie has been waiting for a call from Doc for months. He auditioned, but never got a response. Now there is a need for a headliner to follow a failed magician, and Eddie is that performer. The minute he hears he has a gig, old emotions come flooding back: joy and fear, triumph and tribulation. As he works to prepare for the show, insecurities and doubt start to overwhelm him. He feels panic as he passes out flyers and prays for a good turnout. But the night of the performance, the club is almost empty. Friends have stopped by, but that is about all. Still, the show must go on, and as he takes the stage, Eddie prepares for his comeback. This is his chance. He has to do it for himself. He has to do it for his idol. He has to become Eddie Presley.

Eddie Presley is so close to perfect, almost overcoming its low budget obstacles to turn into something truly classic, that when it finally fails to fulfill its promise, you want to jump into the screen and nudge it forward, providing that final push into the transcendent. About as well written, expertly acted, and carefully crafted as a low budget character study can be, this is a magical movie with one eye in the artistic, the other in the arcane. It's a quirky, incredibly intelligent look at the desperate lives of people on the edge, not just of the business we like to call show, but of the real world, and maybe even reality itself. Indeed, Eddie Presley is an insular movie, the kind of film consistently defining and redefining its own universe as it progresses. It leaks out minor bits of information over the course of its running time and slowly divulges the layers of complexity and detail in each of its main characters. Eddie Presley requires your attention, your undying patience and some semblance of pop culture prescience, to completely captivate and confound you. And if you stick with it, if you buy into the hyper-reality and let the occasional bizarreness wash over you, you'll be rewarded with one of the most telling and insightful films about the struggle to be somebody ever committed to film. Eddie Presley is not really about fame and fortune. Those are assumed perks of eventual stardom. No, Eddie Presley is really about finding yourself, about judging your dreams against reality to see if you can somehow make the divergent elements fit into a workable, valuable identity.

As played by Duane Whitaker, who's been in such diverse offerings as Pulp Fiction (where he played Maynard, one of two "hillybilly" rapists) and that Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite Hobgoblins (who could forget the loveable lout Roadrash?) our title figure is the archetypical failed dreamer, a man who gave up security and a socially accepted lifestyle to pursue his ideals. And it cost him so much (the flashbacks to his family and son are heart wrenching) that he's become a hollow shell of a man. Still, burning inside him is an innocent desire to entertain, to be his revered alter ego and just make people forget their troubles for a while. Eddie longs for the limelight, wanting to drink once more from the well of applause and feast at the table of fame. But he's also a little too connected to his God, so much so that his death in 1977 turns Eddie's life upside down. It could be argued that when the King was found semi-naked in his Graceland bathroom, pants around his ankles and heart frozen in mid-beat, part of Eddie Presley died as well. What once was a flattering imitation became a painful tribute, and the burden of carrying on the spirit of rock and roll literally crushed Eddie, turning him into a shadow, a banshee without a castle to haunt. All this, and much more, is encapsulated in Whitaker's amazing character turn. He manages to balance desperation with the dreamer to turn Eddie into a walking contradiction that demands our attention whenever he is onscreen.

Eddie is also surrounded by several other well-crafted individuals, essayed by actors channeling the most anxious elements on life outside the outskirts of Tinsel Town. Perhaps most remarkable is Clu Gulager (yes CLU GULAGER of San Francisco International and Return of the Living Dead fame) playing a pathetic pervert named Sid, a tainted talent agent in jet black hair and a near kabuki death mask of makeup always heating up the casting couch for another piece of starry-eyed poon. His drunken, dirty old man mixed with used car salesman chagrin is amazing to watch (and who wouldn't want to witness the night moves of a constantly on the make, horny as Hades Clu Gulager???) and adds to the surreal subtext of the film. Similarly, Lawrence Tierney manages to make Supervisor West into a menace without doing much more than being himself (too bad the role is only a cameo). In the significant role of Doc, Roscoe Lee Brown seems to be personally degrading every booker who ever turned him down, by making his club owner an out of touch twit with just a hint of alcoholic rheumy in his eyes. Even the cameos here are mad, a veritable who's who of the then struggling but now famous, including Ted Raimi (Sam's brother and star of the Hercules/Xena shows) Bruce "the Chin" Campbell (as an orderly, along with future superstar Quentin Tarantino) Tim Thomerson (Mr. Zone Troopers and Trancer himself has a hilarious bit as the filthiest comic alive) and Martin Sheen's family disgrace, his brilliantly buffoonish brother Joe Estevez. Together with even more recognizable faces and idiosyncratic one-off performances, Eddie Presley is a movie filled with delicious detail and nuance.

Jeff Burr's daring direction also demands attention. Known mostly for helming some of the 90s most marvelously mediocre horror sequels (including Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, Stepfather II and Puppetmaster 4 and 5), this atypical move for the b-movie maven represents a giant step in the artist department. As a filmmaker, Burr takes risks and tries to rewrite the character study format, mixing in montages and narrative jumps to jolt the genre out of its staid specifics. Sure, we are still saddled with some of those more wistful aspects (the dialogue-less recording of everyday activity, the soul bearing soliloquies) but Burr uses his unique perspective and the unusual circumstances he has been handed by the script to explore the subtext of his subject and characters. He manages to make outsider Hollywood a bastion of true survivors, a lost world unto itself, and his choices of set and location really cement his peculiar perspective. Though the transition into the one act play material could have been handled more smoothly (try and guess where the movie ends and the stage show begins – hint, hint) he still manages to make the theatrical elements work well within a motion picture format.

Still, Eddie Presley is not faultless. It should be, but can't seem to completely get its act together to find that transcendent moment that will lift the audience out of its chair and into the stratosphere of serenity. Its elements are pristine, but they just do not gel into a totally timeless treasure. Maybe it's the lack of music. For a story about an Elvis impersonator, the King's music is mostly absent (obvious low budget vs. rights issues) but that really isn't an issue. Eddie had his own tribute hit (a song called "That's What the King Means to Me" which is a real highlight of the onstage act) and it would have been wonderful to hear a couple more self-penned tunes, especially if they advanced the story's subtext. It could also be the romantic angle. Though the Tyranny storyline pays off pleasingly (where she ends up instead of watching Eddie perform is a nice, naughty twist), the Becky situation is more sad than satisfying. She constantly throws herself at the big galoot, but Eddie keeps her at more than arms length. The lack of any attempted closeness makes that plot more unrequited than it need be. In the end, though, it is perhaps the ultra-realism of Eddie Presley that prevents it from penetrating the motion picture tomes into the category of everlasting. After all, the real world doesn't offer instances of faultlessness, near religious epiphanies that change lives and lift the hearts that witness them. Life is mundane, filled with a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Eddie Presley records all these magnificently. But movies allow for a little more fantasy, and in that department, the film folds up shop and heads home.

The Video
Visually, Eddie Presley looks damn decent for a movie shot on 16mm on little or no budget over 13 years ago. The transfer from Tempe is rich and robust, with nice color corrections, deep darks and shadowy contrasts that really help the movie's mood. Though only available in 1.33:1 full screen, the print is an appropriate portrait of Eddie's life and living arrangements and really enhances the overall tone of the film.

The Audio:
Eddie Presley is also very evocative and ethereal with an ambient, atmospheric Dolby Digital Mono mix. Thanks in no small part to Jim Manzie's amazing guitar driven score, which sounds like Twin Peaks meets surf rock echoing off the walls of the Valley, the soundtrack sells Eddie's worry and joy effectively. The dialogue is always understandable and the ancillary aural attributes contribute a real feeling of the grit and grime of hard times Hollywood.

The Extras:
Tempe Entertainments Special Edition, 2 disc DVD set of this special movie is a true milestone in the history of digital distribution for this no-budget movie company. What we get on Disc 1 alone is amazing. There are two versions of the film (the 106 minute original cut and a 126 minute directors edit of the film) and the differences are interesting. Call it subtle shadings of deeper meaning, but the longer cut merely adds more insight and invention to Eddie and his friendships. Disc 1 also has a cast and crew commentary that is as fun as it is informative. John Burr, along with writer/star Duane Whitaker, cinematographer Tom Callaway, editor Jay Woelfel, music composer Jim Manzie and co-producer Chuck Williams, spend a lot of time reminiscing, and remembering what it was like to work on the film. They have interesting anecdotes about Tarantino, pain in the ass Laurence Tierney and working outside the studio system (Burr had just been burnt by New Line over Leatherface before he made this movie) to realize their vision. Some of the technical notes are interesting, but the overall impression one gets from this narrative track is that we are overhearing a bunch of friends enjoying each other's company and the work they once did together.

Disc 2 finds the vast majority of the remaining bonus footage. Along with the deleted scenes (many of which were incorporated back into the longer cut) there are other outtake moments provided. Mostly, they are scenes that only survived the first three-hour rough cut of the feature. Offered in a rather depressing state of disrepair (filmed off a editing screen, they look like lost transmissions from a post-apocalyptic society) it's nice to see them (and hear the optional commentary) as they further flesh out Eddie's saga. Fans of Bruce C. and Quentin T. (whose participation came somewhat out of the fact that he was shooting Reservoir Dogs at the same time) will want to check out the material from the madness montages, since a couple of cut lines are rehearsed and executed by these motion picture deities. Other items on Disc 2 include a Q&A with the cast and crew (16 mins.) Behind-the-scenes footage with optional commentary by the director & cinematographer (40 mins.), a sampling of Lawrence T's bad tempered onset antics (entitled Tierney's Tyranny) lasting 11 minutes, Scenes from the original stage play (17 mins.) a tribute to Elvis on the anniversary of his death (5 mins) and a segment from the Sundance Channel (4 mins). Together with a full color insert offering introductions to the film by Tempe Titan J. R. Bookwalter and director Jeff Burr, Tempe's Special Edition is an amazing, very complete overview of Eddie Presley's history and production, making the disc a must own for any fans of off the beaten path independent motion pictures.

Final Thoughts:
Movies about society's rejects tend to fall into two categories: imminently depressing (Fat City) and black hole bleak (Barfly). Sometimes, a filmmaker tries to liven up the darkness via comedy (The Dark Backward) or just plain weirdness (Street Trash, anyone?). But Eddie Presley is different. It's a cathartic skid row melodrama, a crazily comic creation with humor on its surface and bitter squalor at its core. It mesmerizes as it makes you uncomfortable, meanders as it manages to hit the sweet spot over and over again. Such a strange, strained incongruity will confuse and corrupt most people's opinion of this beautiful, baffling movie. But if you just give in, go with the shrewdness and accept the limitations, you'll find out just how special this movie really is. Eddie Presley may not be perfect or prosaic, but it's wildly entertaining and inventive. Indeed, this masterpiece (once removed) is one of the best films ever to deal with the struggle and the strife of those desperate wannabes on the outside of the industry, individuals confident they'll be let in - but just not sure if they have the stamina to survive until they do. Eddie Presley is a special film, made even more so by Tempe's exceptional two-disc DVD release. It is highly recommended.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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