Happy Birthday, Jailhouse Rock

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.

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7 Responses to Happy Birthday, Jailhouse Rock

  1. Troy Y. says:

    Fantastic job on this post, Sheila. Jailhouse Rock is probably my favorite of his acting movies. It would have been interesting if Elvis had more frequently taken on challenging roles like this.

    For all the candy-coated goodness of his typical 1960s characters, if only Elvis had been able to channel his darker side and play a villain for a change. Since I first saw A Fistfull of Dollars as a teenager in the early 1990s, I have imagined what it might have been like if Elvis had been able to take on a grittier role against Eastwood in one of those films. Would have never happened, of course, particularly with the Colonel around or even with the budget involved. Plus, fans at that time probably would not have accepted it.

    Great story about how the choreography went down for Jailhouse Rock. One of his greatest movie moments ever – though I hate those dreadful “Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock to the Jailhouse Rock!” overdubs. At least they had the sense not to release the single like that.

    Glad to see you are making it okay through the storms. The devastation is unbelievable. Stay safe.

  2. sheila says:

    Troy – that’s one of the fun things about Charro. He gets to be unshaven, gritty, have shoot-outs … it is certainly inspired by the Spaghetti Western, and he must have had a ton of fun with it. I do like his later movies – as I think I’ve mentioned. Nobody was paying attention by then – but he’s wonderful in Charro, Change of Habit and (my favorite) Live a Little, Love a Little. Oh, and Stay Away Joe, which is ridiculous in many ways, but Elvis is great in it.

    Suddenly “ElvisLand” – which is where most of the other movies takes place – disappears – and Elvis actually seems to be a person in the real world. It suits him.

    But I agree: he would have been so great in a Spaghetti Western, so great up against Eastwood.

    I don’t think he gets enough credit for the acting he’s doing in Jailhouse Rock. That is NOT him. He’s playing a character. A surly entitled sulky character – which certainly was a part of Elvis, but it’s the part he worked hard to keep in check. I think it’s a brave thing for a star of his magnitude to let out a truly unpleasant side the way he does. And we still love him because, you know, he’s Elvis.

    Thanks, Troy – in re: Sandy – we aren’t even close to back to normal yet – my office is still closed – I’ve lost 2 weeks of work – no heat, all these other problems. But at least I have a roof over my head – I was very very lucky!!

    Thanks for your comment!

    • Troy Y. says:

      Yes, I agree, his best movies were his first several (through the early 1960s, outside of the more typical musical/ElvisLand ones as you call them) and his last several. I actually only saw Stay Away, Joe for the first time earlier this year. The opening credit sequence made me think it was going to be one of his best movies ever. The sequence has some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen in an Elvis movie – which makes me wonder if it was lifted from somewhere else.

      Then it devolves into that never-ending party/fight(?) scene that I have tried to erase from my memory. After that, though, the movie does have some charm and at least has the virtue of being “different”. It is great to see him alongside the likes of the incomparable Burgess Meredith, even though Meredith is wasted in this picture by the stereotypical role – which makes for some uncomfortable viewing at times by today’s standards.

      Change of Habit is my next favorite after Jailhouse. Thank you again for a great topic. All of this makes me realize that I have been neglecting writing about his movies for some reason. You have once again inspired a few topic ideas.

      • sheila says:

        Oh see, I love that interminable fight scene. I think it’s hilarious, although pointless. It also gives Elvis a chance to be physical – really physical – not the choreographed karate stuff from those mid-60s movies. I think he would have been a great action star.

        To me, the best part of that film is the long sexually charged scene with the queen of the 1930s, Joan Blondell (I’ve written a bunch about her, she’s one of my favorite actresses). I would love to see an entire movie about a December-May romance between the two of them. My interpretation of their relationship (and I need to write about this) is that he lost his virginity to her, back when he was a kid, and ever since then, they have been “friends with benefits” – I think that that is what they both are playing to beat the band. It’s a great scene. He’s wonderful with actors who are GOOD. Because he’s GOOD. It brings out the best in him!!

  3. sheila says:

    and yeah, I think Burgess Meredith is borderline offensive in the part. I do love Katy Jurado though – she’s so funny and I love her interactions with Elvis. Why I love Stay Away Joe is that it is an ensemble picture. The screen is always filled with a crowd of people, Elvis in interaction with others …

    He had complained early on in his career how his films isolated him – how there were too many closeups of his face (a very very insightful point). He said to Jerry Schilling, “You watch a Brando movie, it’s not all closeups. Why are they doing this to me?”

    Stay Away Joe places him in a busy social context. It could have been the wave of the future for Elvis, had he continued acting. He was great in interaction with others.

  4. sheila says:

    and I’m with you: I adore Change of Habit. But Live a Little, Love a Little is the great undiscovered gem, in my opinion. I cannot understand why that movie is not more known. Long overdue for a renaissance.

  5. Very interesting about the choreography. I had no idea of the back story on that and it once more gives evidence of what us fans have said all along…Though he was certainly a professional and very capable of taking direction, stilll….the more Elvis was actually in charge, the better and more interesting things tended to get!

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