Today is the 55th anniversary of the nationwide release of Jailhouse Rock (the single had been released in September of 1957).
In honor of that, here is the groundbreaking production number of the title song in Jailhouse Rock, which is in actuality a TV special performed by Vince Everett (Presley), at the height of the character’s new fame. The story of the choreography is almost as interesting as the choreography itself, which was totally radical in its day. Alex Romero was the choreographer attached to the film, and he knew that this number would be the main showpiece of the film. (But could he know that it would still be so influential that Eminem would give a nod to it in one of his videos so many years later and it would be immediately recognizable?) Romero came up with choreography that he thought would be appropriate, and he met with Elvis to rehearse it. Remember, this was Elvis’ third movie. He was still quite green, but eager to learn, and polite to everyone.
Dark clouds had been appearing on the horizon during the Jailhouse Rock time, when clashes with the studio execs and the soundtrack producers started to come to a head. These were issues that would continue to plague Elvis, and they came to the forefront during Jailhouse Rock. There had been some dust-ups during the recording sessions for Jailhouse Rock, when Elvis had actually stormed out and refused to continue, due to studio interference, as well as some stress between him and his two original band members, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Moore and Black were not studio musicians. They were rough and tumble honky-tonk rockabilly guys, and the Hollywood studio-musician scene was in many ways foreign to them. They struggled to keep up, Bill Black in particular. Black could not master the electric bass that is featured at the beginning of “You’re So Square”, and had a tantrum, leaving the studio in embarrassment. Elvis picked up the bass and played the part himself, in Black’s absence. That’s him on the recording. The sessions were tense, and Elvis was sensitive. Leaving a session early, as he did, and not showing up the next day, was a bold move, a reminder to the powers-that-be of who was in charge, and despite the issues that Moore and Black clearly had in the studio, I think Elvis was right to make a stand. He did not want to be pushed around, especially when it came to his music. He came into Hollywood already a star. So yes, he “yes ma’am”-ed everyone to death, but Jailhouse Rock pushed him to the limit of his patience.
Elvis worked hard on the part, he adored his co-star Judy Tyler (who tragically died right before the film opened, and Elvis was so devastated he didn’t go to the premiere and never wanted to watch the film again), and got along great with everyone. The songs for Jailhouse Rock were written by the great duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who would pen a couple of Elvis’ greatest hits (before being shoved aside by the Colonel, who didn’t want songwriters approaching Elvis directly). The songs are superior in Jailhouse Rock. I mean, look at the title song. It still gets play.
Romero showed Elvis the steps he wanted him to do, which were very dance-y (you can see the backup dancers doing the style that Romero wanted Elvis to attempt), and Elvis did his best to learn the steps. But he was shy with it, and he knew he was no dancer, although his natural moves had been making girls have orgasms in public for two years straight. But he knew who he was. He was not a trained dancer. It would look stupid for him to attempt it. He didn’t say that, though. He just said he didn’t think he could do it. Romero was a smart man. He did not throw a hissy fit and insist the young Southern boy learn the steps and keep his mouth shut. Instead, he had Elvis perform “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” for him, so HE could study ELVIS’ moves. Then he let Elvis go, telling him they would meet the following day. Romero went home and came up with the concept for the “Jailhouse Rock” number, and as you can see, Elvis has a couple of set things he needs to do, he clearly needs to hit his marks and move to the right and the left, but other than that, Romero let Elvis be Elvis. He got out of the way, gave Elvis a couple of specifics (which Elvis totally turned into his own), and it’s a brilliant job. Because if you know how Elvis moved (and everyone in America did at that time), and then you watched this production number, you would not have a weird disconnect, thinking, “What the hell did they do to Elvis??” He still seems like himself here.
I give Romero a lot of credit for that. There are a lot of egos in the movie business, a lot of people who need to put their stamp on things (and this is not a surprise, nor is it a bad thing). But in this case, Romero realized that his original conception was entirely wrong, he threw it out in a moment’s notice, and entirely re-worked the dance in a 24 hour period in such a way that it would highlight Elvis’ strengths, it would make him look stronger, better, more awesome, more at home.
And boy does he. Jailhouse Rock also contains some of Elvis’ best acting, and the best part is that he plays a pretty unlikable character, arrogant and impatient and violent, who is also a rising star. That’s bold. Of course everyone would think that Vince Everett was Elvis and vice versa. They even included an actual operation that Elvis had to have on his throat in real-life. During the filming of the “Jailhouse Rock” production number, one of Elvis’ caps on his teeth dislodged and got stuck in his throat. Elvis could feel it in there, and when he breathed, a small whistling sound came out. They had to do an emergency operation where they had to peel apart Elvis’ famous vocal cords to remove the cap. There was, naturally, a lot of stress about what this would do to his voice. I think we can all agree that his voice survived fine. But all of this is in the movie, although it’s a fight where a punch lands on his windpipe. Anyone who was an Elvis-watcher at that time, would have heard about this incident in his real life and would recognize it up there on the screen. That was part of the slam-dunk of identification that Hal Wallis and the Colonel wanted to generate in his already insane audience. But Vince Everett is pretty awful. What if this didn’t pay off? What if the audience didn’t accept him in this part? Or, worse, what if they thought he was really that terrible? Elvis let them think that. He kept his counsel. In person he was, perhaps, the politest man who has ever lived, and it’s hard to picture him forcing himself on any girl the way he did Judy Tyler in that truly hot scene on the sidewalk. But he’s fantastic in the part, totally believable. An entitled hot-headed asshole.
You could make a case for “Jailhouse Rock” being the first music video. It was way WAY ahead of its time.
Bonus: Freddie Mercury kicking ass with “Big Spender” and “Jailhouse Rock” together.