Pete is an Elvis Presley impersonator in Las Vegas, but Pete is not like any Elvis impersonator you may have in mind. Pete is Big Elvis! At his peak, Pete tipped the scales as a 960-pound performer, but not only is Pete preternaturally talented (one fellow impersonator asserts that he has a better voice than The King himself), he also believes himself (with good reason!) to be Presley’s actual, living son. In his new short documentary, director Paul Stone draws a riveting character portrait that is not only entertaining for its surface-level premise, but presents real pathos, showing that the man who dresses up in a famous performer’s costume every night is, in fact, an inspiring figure in his own right.
Pete Vallee, aka “Big Elvis”, is a delightful subject for a documentary subject. His story and nature draws you in—he is charistmatic, with a kind heart, and an out of the ordinary life. Inspired by his incredible voice, Stone selected Vallee as a subject for a short doc, and in doing so discovered an unexpected depth to his story that is rare in the overplayed portrait documentary genre. More than a fun snapshot of an oddball, Big Elvis sneakily becomes a very relatable narrative of a man struggling with his identity. Throughout the 12 minute run of the film, Pete is revealed to be a layered and complex human being with an inspiring resilience, trying to make peace with his demons. From Valle’s struggles with depression and his weight, to the maddening inconclusiveness of his parentage, Stone doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh reality Pete faces, but never with a malicious eye, resulting in a tale of a man the audience cannot help but root for.
Not willing to solely rely on a strong story and a fascinating subject, Stone’s aesthetic choices towards the look of the film are integral to his storytelling, with a vintage Vegas vibe of glitzy titles and faux-film burns. Shot over one weekend with no pre-production and a tiny crew—“run & gun” as Stone calls it, the film uses mostly found footage and old pictures with a few shots captured between Los Angeles and Las Vegas via Death Valley. The result is heavily reliant on post for bringing it all together, and the director was inspired by a director famous for his garish use of color—Tony Scott—and particularly his 1993, Tarantino-penned film, True Romance. With his editing partner Zach Kashkett, the pair’s precise cutting gives the film a pacing that echoes the rhythm of the soundtrack, and only after finding the right way to piece all the content together they started the polishing, finessing of all the frames to finally achieve the look desired.
Big Elvis of course also benefits from an amazing soundtrack, full of Elvis covers from Pete, which play up the historical, nostalgic tone of the piece. The story moves forward via cheeky narration, and while this is often a terrible idea, the performance channels Sam Elliot in The Big Lebowski, and simply works, instilling a portentous and mythic-quality to the proceedings. So strong is the Lebowski homage, that it was no surprise to see the narrator credited on the film as simply “The Stranger”.
Previously featured on the site for Man Under, Stone is currently taking Big Elvis to festivals in conjunction with its online release. It had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and debuted online last week as a Vimeo Staff Pick. At the moment Stone is already working on many other commercial projects, as well as his debut feature film. As for Pete, his voice and work ethic earned him a spot on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars.