Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jailhouse Rock: Elvis' best movie?

Is Jailhouse Rock the best movie that Elvis Presley made? It’s certainly the one that comes closest to capturing, as Leonard Maltin called it his capsule review, Elvis’s “nostril flaring, pre-Army glory.”

Released by MGM in 1957, the second year of his worldwide fame, the black-and-white Cinemascope feature cast the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon in the role of a good guy who, coming to the defense of a woman being manhandled in a bar, kills a man, goes to prison, and, in the kind of lucky break that’s possible only in the movies (and not too credibly even there), learns to sing and play guitar, then scores a hit when a prison talent show is televised. Once sprung from the pen, he goes on to conquer show business.

The higher his star rises, however, the lower he sinks personally. He becomes a surly creep, stepping on everyone in his path. His former cellmate (Mickey Shaughnessy) who taught him to play guitar, is paroled and expects to attach himself to his protégé’s rising star. They agree to be partners, but Elvis is much too big for his britches, and the guy’s hillbilly act is too old-fashioned to succeed. He is soon walking Elvis’ dogs. Elvis steps on him, too, but pays for it in the end when his old buddy gives him a severe beating that damages his vocal chords.

Of course, the movie couldn’t end on such a dour note, not in the Hollywood of 1957, so his voice is miraculously restored before the finale where he sings “Young and Beautiful,” one of the few songs on the soundtrack not written by the team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Those Lieber-Stoller songs are the highlight, especially “You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care)” and the famous title track that provides the inspiration for the dance sequence that is the most iconic moment in his film career.

Elvis had one more movie to make before his 1958 induction into the Army. Once he returned to civilian life, his film career rapidly descended into pap. The trailer for 1965’s Girl Happy is included on the Jailhouse Rock DVD, and is cringe-inducing. Hollywood exploited his popularity, but never really tapped his talent.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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