I Refuse To Be Sad About Elvis Presley, Exhibit A

I realize Elvis Presley’s movies are scorned. I realize they are resented for keeping him out of the music business for an entire decade, the decade of the British invasion. I realize many of them are not very good. But I also feel that they aren’t quite as bad as they are made out to be – when taken in the context of how they were made, and who they were made for. Many of them are a hoot. I grew up watching them, and I also loved Elvis’ music as a kid, and I didn’t separate the two things out in any way. It all just seemed a part of who the guy was. He was this crazy good-looking dude who wore bathing suits and strummed a guitar and he was also the gyrating guy in the white bucks in that famous clip you always see. As a 10 year old watching his movies, I experienced no disconnect. To me: All of that was Elvis.

To quote my father, “I see no problem.”

It is my personal opinion that focusing on regret when one focuses on Elvis is not the way to go (if you love him, I mean). It takes some conscious effort, yes, but it is a worthwhile struggle. If one focuses on regret, and the what-might-have-beens, then his entire career starts to look tragic. “Oh how sad that he was so boxed in, oh how sad how it all ended.” But change the filter just slightly, move the prism a quarter-inch to the left, and the entire thing seems completely improbable, first of all, as well as totally triumphant, second of all. Who could survive making such a string of bad movies (although, as I said, I still enjoy most of them – Clambake and Harum Scarum are rather dreary, but the rest of them are a lot of fun) and still come roaring back in 1968, as he did, not only relevant, but dangerous? That 1968 special is dangerous and it wouldn’t have been possible without Presley having been boxed up in a daunting movie contract for the entirety of the 60s.

I would like to explore this more, in more posts about his movies, and – as usual – I am finding the positive in all of it. It’s my nature. I refuse to be sad about Elvis Presley, and I refuse to mourn what DIDN’T happen, when what DID happen was more often than not pretty damn awesome. We were lucky to have him as long as we did. Of course mistakes were made, and he was misused and disrespected. But that was part of the phenomenon, part of the fear of what he represented (never underestimate that fear: people had a vested interest in containing this wild man, and these were people on HIS side!). But the irony is that the fans always “got” it. They always understood what Presley was about. They stuck around, they stick around.

I do have moments where I wonder, “Jesus H. Christ, what if he HAD played Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy?” but that way insanity lies. I feel the same way about River Phoenix, Marilyn Monroe, and other favorites gone before their time. Because of their early deaths, their lives start to look as though they were marching towards that early end, every step of the way set in stone beforehand, everything plotted out for them. Their work starts to take on a certain look, due to the fact that there is an end-date everyone knows, and so the work itself is analyzed as somehow dovetailing with that death-date. As though it all makes sense. But none of us knows when we are going to die. We could have warning, we could bite it in a moment on a highway. This is the human condition. Life erupts, things happen, you react to unforeseen circumstances, you do the best you can. You probably think you have more time. Everyone thinks they have more time. To place that burden on famous people – and make their work somehow be responsible to explain how they died, is unfair, a disservice. (I understand why this happens. People love it when celebs fail, first of all, but also, everyone is afraid of death, everyone wants to believe there is “meaning” in everything. But that is not always the case, at least not in this circumstance, and as always: I will stick up for THE WORK). The early deaths of people like Presley/Phoenix/Monroe actually impacts how their artistry is analyzed, and I have always fought against that.

Like I said, I’ll have more to say about Elvis Presley’s movie career, and it’s a different take than what is out there in the world, but I will stick to my guns about it. Dammit.

In the meantime, I have always loved the number “Bossa Nova Baby” from Fun in Acapulco. Elvis Presley plays his typical character, a dude working on a rich guy’s boat. He loses the job, then gets part-time gigs as a lifeguard as well as a nightclub act, while trying to work up enough money to get back to the States. He also has some personal demons that he has to work out. Meanwhile, he juggles about three women, and befriends a small Mexican urchin, and sings a bunch of songs (many of which are truly terrible. Fun in Acapulco has some real clinkers.)

What I love about “Bossa Nova” is the veritable symphony of MOVEMENTS he goes through. The man is out of control. And yet in control. It’s not the 1956 Elvis, who (in my opinion) knew exactly what he was doing, and found himself in a position where what he felt like doing generated a response in an audience beyond his wildest dreams, so he kept moving that way. No, here, it’s 1963, it’s early yet in his terrible contract. It’s not 1966, 1967. He’s not quite trapped yet. He’s in great shape (he spends most of the movie in a bathing suit), and looks great, and he goes to town on this ridiculous number in a way that seems both calculated and unselfconscious at the same time. Who the hell moves like that? Who the hell moves like that and still maintains his Alpha Male status? It’s insane. He looks RIDICULOUS and yet it’s effervescent, joyous, nonstop. The bongo drums part?

No. It’s not how he moved in 1956, 1957. But it’s something else, movement that is appropriate to the song, and I still get a kick out of it. You try to move like that and not look like a total jackass.

Or, to put it another way. You try moving like that, and look like a total jackass doing so, and yet still be awesome and unembarrassed every second of the way. It’s a small miracle.

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28 Responses to I Refuse To Be Sad About Elvis Presley, Exhibit A

  1. Matt Blankman says:

    I really dig this. I totally get it.

  2. sheila says:

    The narrative is so set in stone now: how sad it was, how fat he got, blah blah blah. I’m sick of it. The guy was a phenomenon. Unstoppable. I prefer to celebrate him. I mourn him too but that’s not the main thing. I mean, WHAT is he doing in this clip?? It’s so HIM.

  3. Brendan O'Malley says:

    Here’s how I look at this scene.
    There is no other actor on the face of the planet who could possibly be as interesting as he is in it. Anyone else would be DREADFUL and tedious.

  4. sheila says:

    Totally! Don’t you think?

  5. sheila says:

    It’s UNCANNY is what it is.

  6. Matt Blankman says:

    I really had a feeling you’d react to the Guralnick books the same way I did. I hope you can find Marsh’s book. I believe Marsh wrote the liners for the 70s box set, too.

  7. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    You’re making me want to queque up “Girl Happy!” I see Elvis’ sixties recording career a little differently than most. He was as good as ever in the studio up until the early part of sixty-three (and was still routinely having huge hits…still the biggest star of that era even though he wasn’t quite as hot as he’d been before the army years). Then he had a real lag in consistency for about three years. But from sixty-six onward he was tremendously productive. (In sixty-six alone: possibly the greatest white gospel album ever recorded, a fantastic Christmas single, and a cover of Dylan that Dylan has often mentioned as his favorite. There was even some above-average soundtrack work. Sorry but that’s a great year. It’s just that the general public didn’t take much notice.) So really he had about three years “off,” not the seven or eight that’s often mentioned. Even then, of course, he was incredibly busy, just not terribly productive artistically. (Note that by the mid-seventies, major artists were taking that much time off between albums–and it was really time off!)
    And just as a final note, those completely “fallow” years, mid-63 to mid-66 still produced odd items like “It Hurts Me” which was the onset of his mature ballad style hurled into the teeth of the British Invasion. It didn’t make much noise on the charts but I always found it telling that, amidst all the familiar, iconic hits, Elvis reached back for that one in his Comeback Special…as if to say “glad you folks have caught up with me now.”
    So no, no need to apologize for Elvis in the sixties! And no need to regret what he did or didn’t do in his lifetime, though I do think it’s fair to mourn what might have been had he lived longer.

    • patricia says:

      NJ – well said!!! I love a lot of his 60 work, very diverse and often brilliantly sung. Problem is that lots of people avoid it because they ‘ve heard that the movie years were a disaster. Do you know Will Friedwald’s – the famous jazz critic – essay on Elvis? It’s such an eye opener and very funny as well how long it took him to “get” Elvis. After 40 years of not getting it he was finally totally hooked – especially by his 60s music. A MUST read.

      Sheila – you did it again. Bossa Nova Baby is one of my favorite movie song – and I just love his frantic dancing here. So sexyyyyy. Guys, if you like to get attention on the dance floor – frantic dancing is the key ;-). Sheila’s brother experienced it…

      • sheila says:

        Frantic! Yes, that is totally the word for it! I love how the left hand is always loosey-goosey, and the right hand is snapping and sharp. He looks completely ridiculous and awesome. Unselfconscious.

        • sheila says:

          And yes, that Friedwald piece is phenomenal. He really really gets it. (In my opinion.) I realize there are such things as subjective tastes and preferences … but then there is also what actually happened, and with someone as huge as Elvis Presley – so much seems to get lost in the shuffle. Friedwald’s piece is very important in that it locates exactly what Presley was doing.

  8. sheila says:

    // I always found it telling that, amidst all the familiar, iconic hits, Elvis reached back for that one in his Comeback Special…as if to say “glad you folks have caught up with me now.” //

    Very very nice observation.

    And I do mourn having Elvis with us now. Tony Bennett’s duet album that just came out – with a wonderful duet of “Lady is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga, so much FUN – made me think of Elvis, and mourn the old man who would “rip it up” with the young kids the way Bennett is doing. Elvis would ALWAYS have been relevant. Imagine what that would have been like!

    One thing I do mourn in terms of his existing career is that he didn’t do more duets. Guy was born to do hot duets with ladies equal to his talents.

  9. sheila says:

    And I adore Girl Happy!

  10. sheila says:

    I love that Dylan cover you mention. Matt and I talked about it recently on Facebook. It’s haunting – a terrific rendition of that song.

  11. sheila says:

    And, just to complicate matters further: I am actually interested in him as an actor. I want to talk more about that. He’s very good. It’s not easy to be good in bad material, but he always was. So that’s a direction I am interested in exploring: Elvis Presley as an ACTOR. Not a popular topic, but I’m an iconoclast and an evangelist. :)

  12. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    “and iconoclast and and evangelist”

    …And that’s why you’re the perfect one to be doing this series!

    Just one final note btw on that Elvis/Bill Black photo from Buffalo…I know there was a good bit of back and forth in the comments on the significance of Black’s intense expression. If you haven’t ever read Max Weinberg’s “The Big Beat” you should by all means dig it up. Money quote from E’s drummer, D.J. Fontana:

    “Well, it was because we didn’t know what he was gonna’ do. Sometimes, if he just wanted to cut the band, he’d just do like that! And you got out. And if he wanted to do something else, you just try to guess what he was gonna’ do next. Like I said before, we just had to watch him every minute–his hands, legs, hips; we had to do this even in the studio. We didn’t know what the hell he was gonna’ do…”

    So what you are probably seeing there is Bill Black, consummate professional musician, watching for cues from Elvis Presley, consummate band-leader. That picture is as good an example of what Fontana was talking about as I’ve ever seen. (Doesn’t invalidate all the other interesting thoughts by the way!)

  13. sheila says:

    That is so awesome. I haven’t read that but I will most definitely check it out. You can hear that give-and-take in the Sun sessions recordings – there is just no way on earth that those guys would “lay down tracks” independent of one another, the way songs are recorded now. The take they decided upon was the take. The live take. That cannot be copied. It is a live moment in history, in time, captured.

    I love the image of the band realizing that they had to follow him – you can see it in some of those early TV appearances. I love, especially, during the musical break in “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Dorsey Brothers show (clip at the bottom of the post here) – Presley sort of makes his body into a weapon, shotgunning himself towards Scotty – and the audience goes INSANE – I go insane just watching it … Jesus Mary and Joseph – that moment! And you can feel the other guys in the band totally pick up on it and take it to another level. HIS level. Brilliant.

  14. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    re: the big beat

    Given your fascination with process I think you’ll find that book a gold mine. Sort of the secret history of rock and roll told by fourteen great drummers. Weinberg basically just gets the conversations rolling and let’s them go. Countless fascinating insights.

    As to Elvis live: I’d always watched his fifties performances by themselves (used to be a Christmas tradition…great because the clips I had ended with his doing Peace in the Valley on Sullivan). A few years ago I got the Sullivan DVD box that Rhino put out and for whatever reason the clips aren’t in chronological order. So Elvis shows up in the middle. I mean virtually every really visually electrifying live act of the era was on there: James Brown, Sam and Dave, The Mamas and the Papas, the Supremes, Jackson 5, you name it. And right in the middle comes Elvis, with clips I’d seen dozens of times and it was like: Jesus this guy’s a performance artist. All of those others, great as they were, made perfect sense. They were logical. Then here’s this guy who does NOTHING predictable. That’s why I think all these college professors who show the Sullivan shows to their students and get a yawning response have it wrong. They always emphasize the “moral” boundaries Elvis was challenging and of couse, those barriers, such as they were, are long gone. I keep waiting for one professor to have the sense to stop one of those performances in the middle and ask the class what they think he’s gonna’ do next…now THAT’S a room I’d like to be in!

    • sheila says:

      Right – in the end, it’s about the artistry. It still has power. Listening to “That’s All Right” even now … puts a chill up my spine. It’s still exciting.

  15. Kent says:

    How many junk movies did Valentino make fulfilling his contract with Paramount? Was Valentino a good actor? Are any of Valentino’s huge huge hits embraced as game changing contributions to film form, or even thoroughly watchable today in their entirety? Do people still visit the grave of Richard Barthlemess, a great actor of Valentino’s era, annually on the anniversary of his death?

    Elvis was one of the biggest and most popular movie stars that ever lived. He still is. He was the last truly great and powerful Hollywood star. His renown as a movie star is only eclipsed by his fame as a pioneering rock star.

    He OPENED and carried the box office on 30+ movies from 1956 – 1972, nobody else did that. How many did Omar Sharif open? Two? Sinatra? 20? Streisand? 6? Garland – 4 and a cartoon. The Beatles – 3 and a cartoon. . Elvis took 50 – 60% of the profits. He had participation in box office gross, as well as cash up front. His deal was BETTER than Marlon Brando’s groundbreaking 11%. The productions paid for recording costs and produced masters that were then turned directly over to RCA for release, putting his records in instant profit.

    His TV special paid for and produced a soundtrack that was instantly profitable as one of the biggest selling Christmas gifts of 1968, and a cross promotional item with all of its major four color advertising buys paid for by the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

    Past all that, he was a gifted actor who had powerful natural instincts and made unique choices. His acting on film is so unique that he is incomparable. He is working on the level of a Marlon Brando, Buster Keaton, James Cagney and Judy Garland, creating the screen identity of “Elvis” without appearing to. As a technical actor, he hit marks, matched action and performed physical business with beautiful timing and no fuss. He could act, sing, dance and he knew how to move in front of the camera for maximum effect.

    He was a cover boy on who knows how many Photoplay and Modern Screen magazines. He had a pet chimp, a pink Cadillac, a gold Cadillac, a jungle room, and more romantic fodder for the sob sisters than Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds put together.

    There was no precedent in feature films for Elvis Presley, and nobody since to fit the mold.

    “There was nobody like him, and there never will be.” – Ann Margret

    • sheila says:

      Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!!!

      • sheila says:

        Can you tell me more about what Oliver Reed said about him as an actor?

        • Kent says:

          Preface to understanding Ollie before telling a story on him about acting technique:

          a) It is now forgotten that before he was a Hammer horror star, he was a very popular pre-Beatles pop star in England signed to London Records.

          b) His Uncle was Carol Reed, so he grew up with house guests like Orson Welles and James Mason.

          c) His Grandfather was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who founded RADA under Queen Victoria, so he also grew up in the shadow of the royal side of the family, which was creatively dominated by Olivier.

          d) He was almost totally dyslexic, so he was naturally drawn closer to film actors and film technique, than stage technique.

          e) During his stormy teenage years he left home and became an unbeatable carnival boxer in the provinces.

          f) Influenced more by Lee Marvin than Brando in The Wild One, Ollie also joined a motorcycle gang, went by the name of “RAT” and wore several dead London rats on a chain around his neck. There were several gang identities in 1950s England, but in general they split into two groups. “Toughs” and “Teds”. Ollie was a Tough, he thought Teds were “poofters”, though he accepted their cultural progeny, “mods”, in the 60’s largely because he loved The Who.

          g) He didn’t like movies that contained “masses of boring yak spoken by bloody poofters in makeup”.

          Ollie said on several occasions that Elvis was his favorite film actor of all time. He occasionally said he admired Lee Marvin the most as well, and when questioned about this: “I feel sorry for him because I beat his bloody arse to a pulp, and laid him down with drink”.

          He was not interested in James Dean, and he thought that Brando had no film technique which offended his professionalism. He adored Lee Remick.

          When questioned more closely about Elvis, he said “watch him, just watch him”. Which meant that in addition to screen impact, and his ability to move and register on camera, he is on his marks, in focus, and in continuity. At the time Elvis was so discredited that at first I thought Ollie was putting me on. After spending more time with him it was clear that he was passionate about the work Elvis did on film.
          A side note… between takes Ollie often sang to himself to stay in focus and not talk on the set. He usually sang Elvis songs.

          • sheila says:

            OH GOD I just ate that up. I read it 5 times. Thank you, thank you. I was unaware of a lot of Reed’s background – loved that you found that comment from Shaw about Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s acting! One of my favorites. Yet another actor incapable of faking ANYTHING, even to the detriment of that moment in the play!

            Going to be thinking about your comment for quite some time (“watch him, just watch him”) and may want to revisit it.

            Thank you Kent!

  16. Kent says:

    …and yes, I’m still looking at my bald head and wish I had hair… HAHAHA… oh lord…

  17. sheila says:

    “Swing it baby – HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA”

  18. patricia says:

    “Past all that, he was a gifted actor who had powerful natural instincts and made unique choices. His acting on film is so unique that he is incomparable. He is working on the level of a Marlon Brando, Buster Keaton, James Cagney and Judy Garland, creating the screen identity of “Elvis” without appearing to. ”

    That’s a really great comment on Elvis the actor, Kent.

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