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.