Elvis Presley appeared in more than 30 films largely during the ‘50s and ‘60s, but few remain well-known today. Most of them were light musicals that used Elvis’ stardom to draw in audiences. I can’t speak with any authority on his career; I’d actually never seen an Elvis film prior to this experience. Even while doing musical marathons and having other opportunities, I never selected a movie from “The King”. This wasn’t a conscious choice to avoid Elvis; he’s created plenty of good songs. In fact, “Suspicious Minds” is one of my go-to karaoke songs. Somehow his films didn’t attract me in the same way as other music superstars from that era.
When I decided to include an Elvis movie in this year's Blind Spots Series, Jailhouse Rock was the obvious choice. The iconic performance of the title track is everywhere in pop culture. On its own, that sequence promises a fun and upbeat story with energetic songs. Elvis does a choreographed dance number to one of his signature tunes; how can it go wrong? That moment holds up well and does not disappoint. This is the image people will see of Elvis 100 years from now. He’s shaking and swaying at the height of his powers, and it’s clear he’s a superstar. Elvis is alive! There’s even a fun touch at the end where a TV producer chides dancers for missing their marks. That line reminds us that it’s all a tightly produced theater, even within the movie.
I mention that line because it connects to what I find most interesting about Jailhouse Rock. In his performance scenes, Elvis is magnetic but never seems truly authentic. The songs are lip-synced, which is the norm for most movie musicals. Elvis has a rare ability to make the moves feel improvised when they’re really tightly choreographed. When you look beyond the songs, this story is a surprisingly cynical take on the music industry. Elvis’ Vince Everett is a wannabe star who has great talent. However, he also has no compassion for anyone but himself. Women and former pals are just pawns for him to push around in his pursuit of money. It sends a weird message to have Vince be such a total jerk right to the end. He only mellows after he nearly loses his voice, and I doubt that he’ll keep being a changed man after the credits roll.
I don’t want to oversell the complexity of this story; it’s quite stilted for the most part. The love story with Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler, who tragically died shortly after production ended) has no sparks. She represents the business side of his career and the authenticity he loses. Judy spends a lot of time smiling, but she’s sidelined once Vince’s career starts flying. The other main character is his former jailhouse buddy Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), a country and western singer. When Hunk gets out of jail, he becomes Vince’s lapdog to stay afloat. He also represents something real amid the fakeness of the industry. When Hunk literally punches some sense into Vince, it’s a convenient way for a jerk to start reforming. It’s also laughably clunky.
Elvis first appears on screen at a construction site and quickly kills a man with his bare hands. The story sets up Vince as an anti-hero ready to fight the world. Later on, he violently slaps a studio head after learning that the guy stole his music. Elvis wants to be Johnny Cash, but he comes off like a whiny teenager. There’s no menace to Vince; his punch of a prison guard during a riot comes out of nowhere. He’s very unlikable, but that doesn’t make us root for him. We need some connection that makes him worth following. Elvis only seems at home when performing, and he’s quite stiff in the dramatic scenes. The possible loss of his voice feels like the right comeuppance for Vince. He’s especially mean towards women and takes Judy for granted right until the end.
Released in 1957, Jailhouse Rock was only Elvis’ third film. I suspect that he grew more comfortable on screen later in his career. He also probably didn’t spend too much time playing idiots like Vince. Despite the story issues, this release was a huge box-office success. It arrived during a time when rock ‘n’ roll was grabbing hold with the public. There’s a conflict within the film between youngsters like Vince and the old-school establishment. Judy and Vince even start an indie record label to sell his music. He’s ultimately corrupted by the old guard and wowed by pretty things. A beautiful actress shows up briefly for a romance and then quickly disappears. That whole sequence feels designed to keep Vince from Judy more than anything else.
I’m glad to check this movie off my blind spots list, but it hasn’t sold me on Elvis as an actor. The tale of possible redemption falls short because he doesn’t feel genuine. Inadvertently, it promotes the idea that Elvis isn’t original. There are many intriguing ways to read the film's themes in terms of Elvis’ career, though I’m not the guy to do it. Taken solely as a piece of entertainment, Jailhouse Rock isn’t a complete product. A few great performances aren’t enough to sell the total package.
This is the fourth entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd.
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