Guest contributor Landon Palmer shares insights into the enduring appeal of Elvis Presley’s film career in anticipation of IU Cinema’s Elvis in Hollywood: Shaking Up the Silver Screen film series, which starts on Sunday.
Throughout the 1960s, following his stint in the army, Elvis Presley’s career was devoted principally to performing in films and recording their soundtracks. While his output during the ‘60s was undoubtedly prolific — starring in 23 feature films and recording 21 LP and EP soundtrack records — it’s hardly remembered as Presley’s creative peak. With the ‘50s rebel classics of Jailhouse Rock and King Creole behind him, Presley’s career revolved around candy-colored works of stakes-free cinematic tourism, romps that blend an interchangeable formula of songs, romance, and exotic locations modeled after his 1961 breakthrough hit Blue Hawaii. Sandwiched between his phoenix-like rise into cultural notoriety in the 1950s and his triumphant return to the concert stage at the dawn of the 1970s, critics have lamented Presley’s 1960s screen career as a vacuum of creativity — a characterization perhaps best distilled by music critic Greil Marcus in his 1975 book Mystery Train, in which he described Presley’s cinematic run as a “zombie saga.”
However, zombie saga or not, Presley’s filmography during this period is quite remarkable, offering a treasure trove of overlooked pleasures and a convincing display of Presley’s distinctive persona.
Elvis Presley movies were not without their cinematic counterparts, whether in the beach party craze, screen performances by other music-to-film stars like Pat Boone, and their notable European contemporaries featuring the likes of England’s Cliff Richard, France’s Johnny Hallyday, and Italy’s Adriano Celentano. But none of these trends or stars matched Presley’s sheer longevity. Throughout rock and roll’s many changes, from AM radio to the British invasion to the Haight-Ashbury scene, and as other stars rose and fell, Presley continued headlining movies. In 1964, only a few months before the Beatles redefined the cinematic rock and roll landscape with A Hard Day’s Night, Presley shared the screen with Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas, his most successful film and an undeniable high point in his filmography. One year later, he was listed by Variety as Hollywood’s highest-paid screen star, proving himself a reliable name throughout a notably transitional period in the American film industry.
Watching Presley perform onscreen in the ‘60s provides a fascinating distillation of the magnetic persona and talents that have made him such an enduring figure in popular culture. Whatever it is that makes a star different from the lot of us, Presley certainly had it: an uncanny charisma that could defy and transcend the limits of any material. Creative skills alone can’t define Presley, as there existed more versatile singers and actors amongst his contemporaries. But few could grab your attention quite like him, especially with the slightest raised eyebrow or a defiant shake of the hip. Presley may not have always believed in what he was saying during the troughs of his filmography, but it is never not intriguing watching him say it.
Presley’s charisma is most evident in his best-known works, especially the gritty showbiz dramas of Jailhouse Rock and King Creole as well as the spectacles of Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas, all showcased in IU Cinema’s retrospective Elvis in Hollywood. But it’s also there in the too-often overlooked movies, from the unapologetic camp pleasure of Fun in Acapulco to the intriguing mix of music and melodrama in Wild in the Country to the cinematic whatsit that is Follow That Dream. And in relatively straightforward dramatic westerns like Flaming Star and Charro!, Presley even demonstrated formidable dramatic talent that probably defined his screen persona in some alternate universe.
Take a look at this odd moment in GI Blues from 1960, Presley’s fifth film and an early example of the musical formula that would define his ‘60s career.
Seen from an authenticity-obsessed perspective of rock and roll, this serenade of a marionette could encapsulate the taming of Presley that Marcus critiqued 40 years ago. But seen from the vantage point of today, knowing the many transformations Presley’s persona experienced over the decade and a half following GI Blues’s release, this scene puts on display the elasticity of Presley’s star image. How many other rock stars could walk away from such an unapologetically silly and self-effacing performance, charisma fully intact?
It’s easy to think of Presley as simply one amongst a litany of popular musicians who made a splash in Hollywood. After all, he showed his debt to song-to-screen crooners of the ‘30s by acting with Rudy Vallée in Live a Little, Love a Little and covered Bing Crosby’s “Blue Hawaii” for one of his best-known soundtrack hits. And of course, the star-is-born narrative of Jailhouse Rock and King Creole has lasted for decades, its influence evident from Purple Rain to 8 Mile. But very few musicians flourished in Hollywood quite like Presley, especially considering the many changes in commercial filmmaking across the thirteen years in which Presley was a movie star. From the beginning of his screen career, Presley movies were produced as ephemeral products built on a youth-targeted cultural trend, yet the Presley formula defiantly lasted for over two dozen features that were recycled for new audiences over decades of television play.
The Elvis Presley movie was not merely a successful formula, but — as IU alum Will Scheibel has written — a genre all its own built around a star for whom there was no substitute. In this respect, Presley’s zombie saga certainly had its ups and downs, but it is without equal.
Four decades after his passing, Elvis remains one of the 20th century’s most significant cultural icons, having left an indelible imprint on music, fashion, and film. This Sunday, January 8, 2017, IU Cinema launches the Elvis in Hollywood: Shaking Up the Silver Screen film series with Viva Las Vegas at 3 p.m. and Elvis: That’s the Way It Is! at 6:30 p.m. Later in the spring the series continues with King Creole, Blue Hawaii, and Jailhouse Rock.
Landon Palmer is a PhD Candidate in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture currently completing a dissertation on rock stars in movies and working as a projectionist for the IU Cinema. He has published on Elvis Presley’s screen performances for Music, Sound, and the Moving Image and a forthcoming anthology on the career of director Michael Curtiz.