Monday, May 19, 2008
You can take all of the great scenes and moments from the American films of the fifties and few would measure up to the thrill of seeing Elvis Presley burn up the screen in Jailhouse Rock. Playing the most badass character of his life, Elvis is simply stunning in Richard Thorpe’s expertly rendered 1957 film and even after fifty years the picture and performance still seem as fresh, potent and alive as ever. Jailhouse Rock is not only one of the best musicals of the fifties, but one of the best films of that undervalued decade in general.
The incredibly prolific Thorpe made nearly 200 films in his four decade career. Starting out with some silent film work in the early twenties, the Kansas born Thorpe became known for his sure handed and economical filming techniques and was well liked and admired by his peers and the many actors he directed.
The tireless Thorpe had just worked with another one of the great icons of the fifties, Dean Martin in Ten Thousand Bedrooms, when he came on board to direct MGM’S Jailhouse Rock. Working from a script by Oscar nominated Guy Trosper (from a story by Nedrick Young), Thorpe’s fine and well thought out direction gives Jailhouse Rock a real solid and distinguished feel. Jailhouse Rock might not be the best Elvis Presley film but it is one of the best directed and the performance Thorpe helped bring out of Elvis is startling.
The film, concerning a young punk named Vince Everett who hits the big time as a singer after being released from prison, is one of the ultimate Rock ‘n’ Roll films…bristling with energy and intensity with an absolutely killer soundtrack (including the title track which would have an overwhelming impact later on both heavy metal and punk), Jailhouse Rock is timeless and will stay so as long as the sound of a buzz saw guitar remains dangerous.
Elvis is surrounded by one of the best casts he ever worked with, including the tragic Judy Tyler (who was killed in a car accident right after the filming wrapped up), the great character actor Mickey Shaughnessy, future Disney favorite Dean Jones and pretty starlet Jennifer Holden. All give very solid performances and they are captured well here under the lense of Robert Bronner, whose black and white cinematography is one of the films biggest assets.
Adding to the film’s quick pace and ferocious energy is Oscar winning editor Ralph E. Winters, one of the unsung heroes of the film. Winters had just wrapped a couple of great Bing Crosby features, including High Society (1956), when he lent his talented editing skills to Jailhouse Rock and his cutting methods serve the film incredibly well, especially in the smashing title number sequence.
Shot beautifully in the 2.35 ratio and later hailed by Martin Scorsese as one of the key films to ever use the format, Jailhouse Rock caused a huge stir when it was released just before Halloween in 1957. One of the year’s biggest money makers, Jailhouse Rock would have been notable without Elvis but it wouldn’t have become an instant legend like it did.
Elvis is quite astonishing in the film. Building on the momentum of his performance in Loving You, Elvis is clearly relishing playing a flawed character like Everett. Taking a cue from his acting idols Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, Elvis plays Everett with a snarling intensity but gives the role an added dimension of humanity due to his overwhelming warm screen presence. Even when Everett is being the biggest jerk in the world, you want him to be okay simply because of the goodness nestled in the heart of Elvis himself. It’s a remarkable performance on many levels, especially in the musical sequences (where Elvis shows his incredible natural grace and skill as a performer) and in the smoldering love scenes with Tyler and Holden, which have a real erotic intensity to them that hold up to this day.
The film would prove to be a major hit throughout Europe as well, especially in France where the French New Wave was emerging as the most important cinematic movement of the decade. Known as Le Rock du bagne in France, Jailhouse Rock (despite being a major studio production) would fit in surprisingly well with the youthful and chaotic energy of the New Wave and would be embraced by many young teenage filmgoers and young future filmmakers in that country as well as in Italy, Sweden, Germany and the rest of Europe. It would have a big impact in Asia as well where it would prove equally succesful.
Jailhouse Rock, one of the triumphs from Elvis in the fifties, would be soured for the young singer after Judy Tyler’s death and he was said to have never watched it again. Pity, as it contains some of the best and most bruising work he ever gave in front of a camera.
The film has never been out of circulation since it came out in 1957 and it can currently be seen on a nice special edition DVD which features a crisp widescreen presentation, a critical commentary and a documentary. A bastardized colorized atrocity pops up occasionally and should be avoided at all cost.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Next time someone tells you that none of Elvis’ soundtrack albums are among his best releases, pull out a copy of Loving You and turn that sucker up to eleven to shut them up. Recorded at a January and February session at Paramount’s Scoring Stages and Hollywood’s Radio Recorders, with Elvis’ Key band filled out with rhythm guitar player Tiny Timbrell and pianist Dudley Brooks added in for even more fire power, the powerful Loving You LP is an adventurous run through heavy rock to western twang to affecting ballads…song for song it stands as one of Elvis’ key and most influential works from the fifties.
The LP begins with a real powerhouse; in the shape of the classic Claude DeMetrius tune “Mean Woman Blues”. One of the great rock and roll songs of all time, Elvis’ ferociously smooth vocal take along with the band in full swinging mode (not to mention some really great background work by The Jordanaires) makes for a real thrilling lesson and an ideal opening to the LP.
An even more commercial, if not artistic, triumph follows “Mean Woman Blues” with the massive hit “Teddy Bear”. This undeniably infectious, if lightweight, Karl Mann and Bernie Lowe song was reportedly a favorite of producer Hal Wallis and the song is still one of the ones Elvis is most identified with and would, of course, go onto to be one of the biggest hits from Elvis’ early career.
One of the three, extremely varied versions, of “Loving You” follows. This gorgeous Lieber and Stoller song is among my favorite Elvis ballads and the take used for the LP is among the most delicate and genuine from the session. With The Jordanaires lilting vocals behind him and some wonderfully communicative piano playing by Hawkins guiding the song, “Loving You” is an understated masterpiece…just simply gorgeous.
The album starts rocking seriously again with Barry Gibb favorite “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do”. Featuring some thunderous drumming by D.J. Fontana as well as some of the most delightfully trippy lyrics of Elvis’s early career (courtesy of Schroeder and Weisman), “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do” is, from beginning to end, an absolute adrenaline rush.
The song originally designed as the title track, “Lonesome Cowboy”, follows and it is among the most haunting tracks from Elvis in the fifties. With a clomping percussive pattern that recalls Elvis’ legendary Sun Sessions take of “Blue Moon” from a few years before, this Tepper and Bennett creation is a dramatic and incredibly lonely chiller guaranteed to give even the most jaded fan goosebumps.
With its great train like vocal opening from The Jordanaires, Lieber and Stoller’s “Hot Dog” is another party classic. Incredibly short at just past a minute, this would have made an ideal choice for mega-Elvis fans The Ramones later on. It’s a shame they never gave it a crack…
Even better than “Hot Dog” is the wild Jess Mae Robinson track, “(Let’s Have a) Party”, a crazed down-home classic that would be a real favorite to two young boys from Liverpool named Paul and John. The future Beatles spent hours close to their record player trying to decipher the lyrics Elvis was singing like they held some sort of secret key that needed to be deciphered…thankfully they discovered it and “Party” stands as one of the great least mentioned and most influential songs from Elvis in the fifties.
Fat’s Domino’s famous “Blueberry Hill” follows and, in all honesty, Elvis’ version just doesn’t measure up to the shattering original. Still, it’s not a bad take even if it is among the weaker moments on the record.
Another cover, this time Cole Porter’s “True Love”, is up next and it’s a real beauty. Popularized in a gorgeous version by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly the year before in the film High Society, Elvis’ version just melts and its still a real pleasure to revisit.
A song more associated with Elvis’ next movie, Jailhouse Rock, follows but the Schroder and Weisman track “Don’t Leave Me Now” is welcome on any album you can get it on. Featuring another great match between the vocals of Elvis and The Jordanaires, the Loving You LP version of “Don’t Leave Me Now” is a real success.
The underrated Scott Wiseman song “Have I Told You Lately I Love You” follows and the admittedly slight song is transformed into a yearning classic by Elvis’ smooth croon. Listening to it, you can almost picture the lost love he is trying to convince of his passion sitting right in the studio with him.
Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Need You So” is given a slow burlesque grind feel by the band and it’s a nice if slightly under whelming ending to the album. While not as powerful as the rest of the record, it at least allowed RCA (along with a few other tracks) to expand the album to a full length LP since the original film of Loving You only contained half a dozen or so songs in its running time.
The LP of Loving You soared to number one in mid 1957 and it remains one of the great Rock and Roll soundtracks of all time. While perhaps not scaling the heights of the King Creole album on the horizon, it is one of the most unjustly neglected of all of Elvis’ long players and deserves wider recognition.