Friday, January 9, 2009

A Birthday Tribute to Elvis Presley

January 8 marked the birthday of Elvis Presley and in his honor Turner Classic Movies presented a full day of his films. What an incredible talent he was.

The peak of his fame came in the 1950s, long before I was a teenager and by the time I reached the age of listening to rock 'n roll he was definitely passe among the "hip" on the West Coast of America, where I grew up. As a young person, I got the idea that he was a strange, weird hick, as if four lads from working class Liverpool--aka the Beatles--were not!

A few years ago I saw a documentary on PBS made up of still photographs that had been taken by a friend of his during the first few years of his fame. (I've Googled it but still can't figure out which documentary I saw--there are so many about Elvis.) It showed what a perfectionist he was about his music, how hard he worked at his craft, and, I thought, how amazingly talented he was. I was really impressed and began to re-examine my view of him as a country bumpkin who got really fat, wore icky-looking Superman outfits, and died from taking drugs and eating fried peanut butter sandwiches.

What I found was just what others found long before me: he had one of those talents bestowed on him by the gods. It was a unique and compelling gift. Watching his films, on the anniversary of his birth, was not only a revelation, it was really fun. I watched them as I worked out at the gym, and continued watching them as I packed my boxes for my move back to California.

I realize that as classic films his movies have flaws: the stories are silly, his acting is wooden, the director seems required to show us Elvis' entire body in every shot, and the scripts don't give even a good actor much to work with. But the minute he clicks into a song--and there is one just about every five or ten minutes--he comes to life. His films give us something that will never go away as long as movies survive: a documentary record of him in his absolute prime. And there is another thing about Elvis Presley movies: when he's on the screen, you cannot take your eyes of him.

I have always loved his "Jailhouse Rock" number from his 1957 movie of the same name. It is one of the best song and dance numbers in any movie, ever. Yesterday I saw another one: Elvis doing a tango with Laurel Goodwin in the film GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! to an Elvis song I don't think I'd ever heard before: "The Walls Have Ears." When Elvis made this film, he was 27 years old, tall and pencil thin. His tango is stupendous and he is obviously having lots of fun doing it. He also sings "Return to Sender" in GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! one of his biggest hits.

In ROUSTABOUT (1964) he stars with Barbara Stanwyck. By the time she made this film Stanwyck's years as a romantic lead were two decades behind her. But, she was a savvy film veteran and in playing the older woman who hires Presley for her carnival, she shows just how smart she was. She knew a star when she saw one. And she could read his box office receipts. No fool she.

The best number in ROUSTABOUT is Presley singing another song I had never heard him sing, the quirky and funny Leiber and Stoller number, "Little Egypt," a hit for the Coasters in 1961. (Leiber and Stoller are the prolific songwriting team featured in the Broadway review "Smokey Joe's Cafe," during which you sit there shaking your head for two hours at the hit songs that keep on comin' as you say to yourself, "I can't believe they wrote that too?" The only trouble with "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is that the stars who recorded these tunes--Ben E. King, Elvis, the Drifters, the Clovers--aren't there in the theater to sing them and nobody compares with them.) Lieber and Stoller wrote about two dozen hits for Elvis including "Hound Dog," "Loving You," "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," and "Jailhouse Rock." "Little Egypt" is really well done in "Roustabout:" it keeps exactly to the Coasters' version and is backed up by a very good chorus of dancers doing something wildly Egyptian. Very good and funny.

Turner Classic Movies ended the day with a showing of ELVIS ON TOUR (1972). It was hard to watch so I lowered the sound and began to make dinner. He was bloated from drugs and in his sequined period. But at the end of the film, he dashes off stage and into his waiting limo and after several shots of screaming fans the annoucer recites that famous line: "Elvis has left the building." I'm glad I kept that movie on: I never knew the source of that crazy line before.

So this is the long way 'round of saying I've belatedly become a fan. And I wish he had lived to see his 74th birthday on January 8, 2009. I think somebody ought to put away those really awful concert videos of him from the 1970s when he was the bloated, perspiring sequined parody of himself, and, instead, sit down with some of the thirty films he made between 1956 and 1969. You'll be very entertained and impressed. I'm probably the last person in America--make that the world--to figure this out. I sure wish Elvis hadn't left the building so young.

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