2023 has been a year for comebacks for several veteran classic rock acts.
We got new music from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, for one thing.
Perhaps most surprising of all, we’ve had a revived interest in Elvis Presley.
A biopic on him, Elvis, was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture earlier this year. And similar Oscar talk is occurring around the new movie Priscilla, about the life of Presley’s wife.
Amid all this chatter, I recently found one of the best YouTube videos ever about the King of Rock and Roll.
I’d like to share it with you because I think you’ll enjoy it too. It’s called:
“I watched every Elvis movie and all I went was insane.”
Actually, the YouTuber went further than that. His result is indeed funny – but also insightful about Elvis and his filmography…
… the latter of which is problematic at best.
It’s Deep Thought, Not a Cheap Shot
In the video, twentysomething host Ewan from the United Kingdom watched and researched over 30 films for 3 months to clarify and dispel misconceptions about Presley on screen.
(Incidentally, by doing so, he shatters one myth: that younger generations have little to no interest in anything that happened in entertainment before they were born.)
Ewan lays out how and why Elvis wanted to conquer film as much music when he emerged in the 1950s. The success in the medium of his idol Frank Sinatra was one reason. But whereas the Chairman of the Board appeared in several classics such as:
From Here to Eternity,
and The Man with the Golden Arm ….
Elvis starred in the likes of Girl Happy,
… and heaven help us all:
Ewan explains what went wrong by dividing the cinematic output of Elvis into 4 phases:
- 1956-1958: Elvis Goes to Hollywood
- 1960-1962: The Birth of the Elvis Movie
- 1963-1968: Absolute F**king Hell
- 1968-1969: The End and Beginning
That’s a lot to cover: and Ewen does so lovingly, but fairly. Here’s the condensed version:
Where Things Went Wrong
Elvis made his theatrical movie debut in 1956 with Love Me Tender. A year later, the bigger success of Loving You, with Elvis playing a fun-loving guy who attracts the ladies between fighting bad guys and crooning songs, set up the template to follow thereafter.
“It was part of a concerted effort to ameliorate his image in the public eye,” Ewan says. “The whole story of this movie is designed to show Elvis’s character—and by association Elvis himself—as misunderstood and worthy of sympathy.”
Trapped by a contract with producer Hal Wallis which Presley’s notorious manager “Colonel” Tom Parker fully supported, Elvis found himself typecast and unable to escape this mold for most of his pictures.
Yet Elvis brought some of his cinematic suffering upon himself.
Ewan notes the singer turned down the leads in the Oscar-nominated films Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones because they involved characters with big flaws.
And Elvis rarely showed that depth anywhere anytime, even in real life.
The lack of care and professionalism on these projects became apparent by the 1960s. Ewan shows several clips where Elvis seems to be rolling his eyes during the proceedings and garbling his lines to get them out fast in one take.
The system seemed to affect his colleagues as well. Elvis worked alongside several Oscar-nominated performers, including Angela Lansbury, Burgess Meredith, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Stanwyck and Gig Young.
Yet each seemed to be dragged down along with Elvis by the hackneyed scripts, wan direction and tight production budgets in his movies.
One notable exception was Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas.
Her effervescent screen presence and dynamic singing and dancing nearly blows Elvis off the screen.
Colonel Tom noticed that as well.
And made sure Elvis didn’t have any costar like that thereafter.
The cumulative effort of all this kept Elvis among the top 10 box office attractions for much of the 1960s, but at a steep cost. His music career went down even worse than the quality of his flicks.
Though the video doesn’t say it, Elvis had his last US number one soundtrack album with Roustabout in 1965.
And the title track for Frankie and Johnny in 1966 became his last song from a movie to sell a million and make the top 30 in the United States.
Elvis finally did escape from the doldrums when he had his comeback in 1969 and started doing regular shows in Las Vegas and other concerts. Of course, that change brought other challenges to Elvis, but that’s for another discussion.
The Lowest of Low Points
With so many films for Ewan to review, things can start to blur in the mountain of mediocrity he surveys. However, two of them stick out to me as sounding particularly bad:
· Kissin’ Cousins (1964) was shot in a breakneck pace of just 18 days, even with Elvis playing twin lead characters.
It was set among hillbillies in the mountains, but filmed unconvincingly on Hollywood soundstages. Coming out during the height of Beatlemania in America, it really made him look unhip and out of touch to the current rock scene.
· Stay Away, Joe (1968) had Elvis playing a half-Navajo in brownface makeup.
“It is a genuinely racist piece of filmmaking … This is also the worst film technically in the Elvis movie canon,” assesses Ewan. That’s saying a lot after the clips you see prior to this point.
The Final Takeaways
Ewan seems genuinely sympathetic about the plight of Elvis overall, even while cringing and laughing at various aspects of each movie. He brings out elements others have overlooked to my knowledge.
For example, especially disturbing is the recurrence throughout of Elvis performing love songs or even suggestive numbers to little girls.
This is even worse when you remember Priscilla was under age when Elvis started dating her.
Leaving all that aside, the one good thing to emerge is that no rock stars wanted to follow in what Elvis did on film.
No one has emulated his efforts probably because they saw the short-term gains made weren’t worth the legacy that occurs from doing so.
Or, as Ewan astutely says:
“The only thing worse than failure:
is a persistent success to remind you of your own mediocrity.”
Check out Ewan’s video when you have 95 minutes or so to spare. It’s well worth your time.
Certainly more so than 95 percent of the movies Elvis put out.
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