Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Heath Holland On...Three Flicks: Elvis!
Well, folks, it’s finally happened: I’ve been bit by the Elvis bug. Most of you know that, in addition to movies, I’m also a big music guy, particularly The Beatles. When good music is combined with good filmmaking, I’m in heaven.
I know the Quentin Tarantino-scripted dialog in Pulp Fiction about how you’re either a Beatles person or an Elvis person (that you can like on or the other but at some point you have to choose, and that choice tells who you are) and I used to think that was true, but now I’m not so sure. The longer I live, the less I think you have to pick between the two. They’re so different. I mean, it makes GREAT dialogue for a film, and it totally informs Uma Thurman’s character in that movie, but I can no longer apply it to my life because I love the Beatles, and now…I love Elvis.
They set out to do different things. Elvis predates the Beatles by several years, and was a huge influence on them. He created a lot of the music and style that got them interested in rock n' roll in the first place. I say you don’t have to choose. Life’s too short for labels and boxes. It’s all connected, anyway. The Beatles couldn’t have existed without Elvis (or would have been a very different band) and Elvis was pushed and challenged by the Beatles. The whole scene fed off itself. It’s like a snake eating its own tail; or, more appropriately, like two really, really good looking people in a sixty-nine. Mrrrawr!
But if there is a debate about the music of both artists, there is less of a debate about the movies in which they starred. The Beatles gave us five films (stay tuned for a future column), but Elvis gave us over 30 films -- including two behind-the-scenes theatrical documentaries-- during his short life. True, they vary wildly in quality, but no one can argue with Elvis' place in movie history.
It’s odd, because until relatively recently, I had zero interest in Elvis Presley's music or movies (though I would have been a lot quicker to acknowledge his contribution to the birth of rock and roll than his contributions to the silver screen.) But lately I’ve been surprising myself, and here I stand (or write) before you, a convert. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks compiling a substantial collection of these movies on DVD and Blu-ray, in part because Netflix Instant doesn’t offer much in the way of his films, but also because we here at F This Movie! support physical media. I certainly haven’t gotten through all of them. Not by a long shot. That will take months, but I have been through enough of them to form a clear idea about the man and how he represented himself on film.
The way I see it, Elvis had a few movies in his early years where he was passionate and hungry, young and full of rebellious fire. But the bulk of his movies, those from the '60s, are cookie cutter storylines, filmed like a travelogue in an exotic location. Elvis comes in, sings some saccharine songs, and gets the girl. It’s the young, hungry Elvis I’m most interested in, so two of the movies in this installment will deal with that period.
It’s also impossible to talk about some of these movies and not talk about what they meant to early rock and roll culture. Elvis’ contributions to rock and roll cannot be underestimated. In 1954, he walked into Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded what some consider the first rock song with “That’s Alright, Mama.” He took predominantly black music (gospel, rhythm and blues) and put a southern, country spin on it, creating that early rockabilly sound. These first, early movies of his acting career reflect a star who sang a new kind of music. He was a revolutionary: dangerous, sexual, and threatening to the establishment.
What’s interesting about Jailhouse Rock is that it’s essentially the first movie ABOUT rock and roll. There had been rock music in movies, like Bill Hailey in Blackboard Jungle and Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in the Jayne Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It the year before. But Jailhouse Rock is about the birth and rise of a rock and roll star, and the story, in many ways, parallels the rise of a young Elvis. The movie came out two years after his first single and only a year after his status quo-shattering appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show where he swiveled and humped with enough enthusiasm to impregnate the girls in the back row. He was still a brand new personality, just getting started in so many ways, but here was a movie addressing and validating this music as being viable. It upset a lot of people. Elvis is a prick in this movie, and if it teaches us anything, it’s that you can be a dick all the time, only care about money, mistreat your friends, ignore your boss, agent, and director, and STILL get the girl and live happily ever after with incredible success and the respect of those around you.
As an actor, he’s really good and there’s definitely raw talent on display. He has the IT factor, the unnamable quality that the best stars have. From his hair -- stacked up messy and high -- to his shiny shirt down to the soles of his black and white wing-tips, he’s oozing charisma and rebellious energy. He doesn’t really seem like he’s acting, which is impressive for a 22-year old guy who was driving a truck just a few years earlier. Also, his actual backing band of rockabilly pioneers Scotty Moore (guitar) and D.J. Fontana (upright bass) are in the movie, which makes me happy. They helped arrange the songs that made him famous, so it feels justified that they should also feature in a movie that parallels the story of a rising rock and roll star.
Presley stars this time as Danny Fisher, a two-time high school senior living in New Orleans, trying to help his family make ends meet because his mom has died and his dad can’t keep a job. If Elvis was a prick in the previous movie, he’s a more relatable character in this one, but still not a nice guy. He’s a fully fleshed out character, with good qualities and bad qualities. To date, of the Elvis movies I’ve seen, this is also my favorite Elvis character, and feels the most real: he works in a bar, cleaning up when they close before he goes to school in the morning; he’s violent, angry, associates with hookers and call girls, and calls his high school teacher “honey.”
He and his sister are doing everything they can to make ends meet and keep their family afloat, but Danny’s take-no-crap attitude (I love this guy) gets him in major trouble at school and he ends up dropping out. Forced into the role of provider, there’s not a lot of opportunity for a high school drop out and Danny has some choices to make, but he can sing and people enjoy hearing him. As the story progresses, two paths open up for Danny. The first one involves a nice girl who works at the five and dime, singing at the King Creole club, and making an honest living the hard way. The second path involves working for the local crime boss Maxie Fields, played by Walter Matthau, falling in with a used up escort (Carolyn Jones, who a few years later would star as Morticia Addams in The Addams Family), and making a lot of money doing the wrong thing. Unlike some Elvis movies, which present a premise at the beginning and then playfully unravel, King Creole burns through the entire film with little clue as to where the story is going. We learn more about Danny throughout the movie, and we’re still learning about him as it’s ending.
It’s a great character drama, decidedly mature, adult, and dark. This is big step for Elvis, especially coming off of Jailhouse Rock where he played to his teen fans. King Creole has bigger things on its mind, and Elvis Presley the actor rises to the challenge. Had things turned out differently, I truly believe Presley could have been another Marlon Brando. He was willing to go to unsavory places in this movie, to be darker and more unlovable than you would initially expect. His character plays an active role in the dark places this story goes, and he’s responsible for a lot of what happens to him. He’s not innocent -- he’s got dirt on his hands. Elvis wasn’t chasing the movie star image here, he was acting and swinging for the fences. He almost made it.
Another thing I really admire about this movie is that in pretty much all of his other movies, Elvis just starts singing. He’ll be talking to a girl, then BOOM, he’s singing. Sometimes there’s choreography. Even in Jailhouse Rock, the songs are thinly woven into the story. They’re really just there to sell a soundtrack and show us Elvis doing what Elvis does, loving us tender and telling us to stay off’a his blue suede shoes. In King Creole, however, the songs are pretty well integrated into the plot. Danny sings at the King Creole club, and almost all of the songs performed in this movie occur on stage in the club as part of the act. There are a couple of deviations from this setting, but for the most part, his songs happen in that club environment, which works really well. And the music is great. It’s mostly blues filtered through Dixieland jazz, and it really works.
King Creole is a fantastic, dark little gem of a movie that I’m really glad to have seen. I thought I knew what all Elvis movies were about, but this one is different, and it really shows a star. Sadly, that star was about to change for good. It was during the filming of King Creole that Elvis Presley was drafted into the army. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, worked things out so that he could finish filming. After reporting for service, it would be two long years before another movie or album appeared from the superstar.
There are a lot of people out there (I am one) who think that the US government and the establishment were very threatened by the whole rock and roll movement and that by drafting Elvis, a superstar in every definition of the word, a clear message was being sent to America. That message was “rock and roll” is now over. We now know that it wasn’t, but by the time Elvis returned from military service in 1960, things were very different. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash in 1959. Eddie Cochran died in a car accident in 1960. When Elvis came back he was safe, clean cut, respectable, and tame. His movies after his army tenure predominantly fall into the pattern we now associate him with of an exotic locale, a quest for a girl, and some schmaltzy songs that shouldn’t really offend ANYONE. For a while, rock really was dead. It would be two more years before four guys from Liverpool gave us a reason to twist and shout.
These later movies aren’t bad, and they certainly have their place. In fact, I really enjoy them, and it’s nice to be able to sit down and watch something that is short, colorful, fun, and not particularly deep. The films Elvis made in the '60s are mostly feel good little pieces of disposable entertainment. Some of them have some really good music, too. But they are a far cry from Jailhouse Rock and the performance from King Creole. Elvis the actor, who wasn’t afraid of being despicable, was mostly gone.
Ann-Margret is a good addition to this movie, because she's able to rise to Elvis’ level and serve as a character just as interesting as he is. She doesn’t get sucked into the black hole of his stardom; as the documentary on the disc points out that, she was, in many ways, considered a female Elvis. She could sing, dance, and act pretty well and also had the same IT factor. In fact, she seems to get pretty much the same amount of screen time that Elvis himself gets in this one. It's widely acknowledged that the two stars carried on an affair during the movie and were really in love. That’s probably why this is one of the most highly acclaimed Elvis Presley movies. You can’t fake chemistry.
Anyway, all that back and forth flirting and singing culminates in a race through the Nevada desert, which seems to be a mix of actual location filming and rear projection studio magic, but the location shots are really exciting. The desert just makes a great backdrop for just about anything (including a jillion music videos) because of the production value it brings, and a high speed car race just feels right.
There’s certainly nothing in the vein of real drama or character development here, and that’s okay. At this point, we’re watching Elvis movies for totally different reasons than we were in the '50s. He was the '60s male equivalent of Julia Roberts, a person that everyone loved. By this point, he was a national treasure. And I wonder what came first, "Viva Las Vegas" the song or the movie? Because it almost seems like it’s a really great song (and it is great) that had a movie built around it.
After Viva Las Vegas, Elvis would continue his formula of “exotic location/pursue the girl/overcome a challenge to get the girl/happily ever after” for several more years. By 1969, he’d had his fill of acting in movies and singing songs he didn’t believe in. He returned to the passion for his music that had marked his career over a decade earlier, and set up a residence in Las Vegas where he’d perform for hundreds of thousands of people. From here on, we had the ridiculous jumpsuits and karate moves, the big sunglasses and huge sideburns. In some ways, it’s a cautionary tale: the intense young man from Jailhouse Rock and King Creole could have pursued more challenging roles, but instead spent the better part of a decade phoning in easy performance after easy performance.
But they’re still good movies, and the films that Elvis left behind stand as a lasting legacy. There’s only one Elvis, and I’m really thankful that the founding father of rock and roll was able to make such a considerable contribution to the world of film. There’s at least one of his movies for every mood or occasion, and within those movies are some really wonderful songs. There are so many of them that you could spend hours and hours lost in the worlds of Elvis Presley. For the next few weeks, that’s where you’ll find me.
The King is dead. Long live The King.