Separated from Jailhouse by seven years, 11 increasingly unwatchable movies, a military tour of Germany, and a serious plummet in both the size and merit of the King's musical output, Viva Las Vegas is analogous to its predecessor only in being equally fascinating. In this case, the film is fascinatingly fun. No longer expected to have anything to do with real rock & roll (or authenticity in general), the King gets knee-deep in cheese and loves every minute of it. He's a race-car driver who spends the entire film in a gridlocked competition with Cesare Danova for the relatively elusive Ann-Margret. And while the driver he plays does mention something or other about not racin' for no one, when the haughty Euro-stud played by Danova asks him to join his team, there's little or no pretense of Elvis's Lucky Jackson being another rebel loner. The E simply saunters from one Technicolor number to the next, keeping his eyes on Maggie's moneymaker and enjoying the ride.
He joins a herd of chorus girls for an elaborate (and well-performed) spin through "The Yellow Rose of Texas," gracefully trades choice couplets with Ann-Margret on the dainty duet "The Lady Loves Me," butchers "What I Say?" and sends up one of the late 20th century's finest odes to itself via the film's title track: a song so wicked that not even a Dead Kennedys cover could unseat its majesty.
Yet, to oversell the film's kitsch appeal--always an easy-in with the indie crowd and irony buffs in general--would be to underscore what is actually a fantastic film. Get thee gone, pathos! Kitsch or no, Elvis is confident and happy in Viva Las Vegas. Where Love Me Tender asked him to squeeze his charisma into a prescribed role (that of a post-Civil War farm boy) and Jailhouse to play a bent version of himself (or at least the one the industry had typed out for him), Viva lets him get good and greasy as Elvis. His young-buck womanizer here is more akin to the glib and glitz-hungry Frank Sinatra of Pal Joey (1957, interestingly enough) than anything remotely resembling the "kid" in Jailhouse Rock.
And Pal Elvis seems strangely liberated, even if behind the scenes he was sinking deeper and deeper into decadence and distance, further and further from the world that had long since surrendered to the beast in him. It's a mad mad mad mad world. Viva, baby. Viva.
Jailhouse Rock andViva Las Vegas screen Friday through Sunday at Oak Street Cinema.