Lights! Camera! Elvis!
There are two Elvis Presleys: Jailhouse Elvis and Vegas Elvis. Don't confuse them. Jailhouse Elvis sang purdy gospels for his mama. His unassuming legend binds up our hopes and dreams and repackages them in songs with innocuous titles like "Teddy Bear" and "Blue Suede Shoes." When he moves, he incites the '50s congressman to reproach him and his music as "violative of all that I know to be good in taste," while inspiring the American Studies minors of today to write trenchant senior theses such as "All Shook Up: Elvis and the American Heartland."
Vegas Elvis ate 14 cheeseburgers, washed them down with half a bottle of pain killers, and shot the shit out of a 21-inch Panasonic color TV with a .45 caliber pistol because he thought he saw Ringo waiting in the wings on the set of Merv Griffin. There is little or no common ground between the two Elvises. Which is why Oak Street Cinema's pairing of Jailhouse Rock (1957) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) is such a treat.
Smiling down at us from the final fade-out of his first (good) movie, Love Me Tender (1956), Elvis Presley has a face that's gorgeous enough to blot out the sun. Sound trite? Two years later, the American press was treating him as a celestial body. "Do you plan to be a power for good?" Time asked, probably with less irony than we'd like to imagine. The answer: "I've just been taking it as it comes." What else could he say?
If the media saw Elvis as a cross between a UFO sighting and a UFO landing, his preparatory roles in Love Me Tender and its follow-up, Loving You, both projected him toward his first lead role: that of Vince Everett, the brooding, self-centered post-delinquent of the very first rock-star vehicle, 1957's Jailhouse Rock. The dual '50s legends of James Dean and Marlon Brando hardly impeded the process. The influence of Jailhouse Rock on rock & roll and movies--and, of course, rock & roll in movies--cannot be understated. Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted a flick that could create a celebrity to outlast a fleeting fad like rock & roll. In other words, Elvis wasn't to be the vehicle for the first single-star rock & roll movie; rock & roll was to be the vehicle for Elvis's first starring role. So, unlike proto-rock flicks like The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which tagged a raggedy plot onto a set of rock songs and rock & rollers, Jailhouse tailored the songs to the story and the plot to the man. From there, myth would do the rest, and voilà: Charles Lindbergh, watch your ass.
What came out was an incredibly weird, dark, funny movie. Often cited as the "best"--and some say most "authentic"--"Elvis movie," Jailhouse is no less aggressively cynical than the Colonel's designs. The songs that the young R&B team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote for the movie are certainly fun but often snidely tongue-in-cheek. (I know it was 1957, and people were a little less crass than they are now, but really: "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see...Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me" pretty much drives it home--er, uh...wrong metaphor. And while I don't know exactly what the line "If you can't find a partner use a wooden chair" refers to, I bet it hurts.)
Encouraged not to take acting lessons, Elvis the actor was treated as a hunk of flesh and typed as a yokel. In Jailhouse Rock, he's stripped and covered in coal dust, then restripped and whipped. The plot he's led through is positively deranged. After getting out of the pen, El is scooped up by the gorgeous "exploitation man" Peggy (Judy Taylor), who leads him through a world of mutants: midget club owners, hyena-like clubgoers, facelessly good-looking Dick Clark-ish record spinners, and company slime.
All of them get a piece of the E in some way or other, and Elvis morphs into a wholly unlikable, whiny little prick, which he remains up until his near-death brawl with his jailhouse mentor-turned-toadie, Hunk (Mickey Shaughnessy). But then, Elvis cleans up his act, learns to love Peg, and runs through the film's vapid ballad, "Young And Beautiful," once again, but with feeling--and we head home hungry for an uplifting night with Bergman's The Seventh Seal and a keg of Liquid Plumber.
Yet, despite such rehabilitation of character, Elvis can't help but evince intensity: It's there in his leer and his ambivalent glare (both typed by the disdainful Dylan of 1967's Don't Look Back and the distant Prince of 1984's Jailhouse-derived Purple Rain) and the unmistakable way in which he snarls and strides as his character careens into music-biz and Hollywood hell. He is, in a word, shit-cool. "How dare you think such cheap tactics would work on me," Peg yells, after El grabs and kisses her without warning. "Them ain't tactics, honey," he drawls with backwoods abandon. "Tha's jus' the beast in me." Thus, in this very early battle of the Pomo Wars, Hollywood's plasticity brilliantly one-ups rock authenticity, typing its first rock & roll singer as a greedy, tantrum-throwing jerk--an industry player sucked in a Faustian downward spiral that could only end up in, well, Vegas.
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 and Viva Las Vegas screen Friday through Sunday at Oak Street Cinema.
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