What’s this? Three Elvis Presley movies and a live performance by an acclaimed Presley impersonator? Well, why not? Because, hey, if you’re a true-blue fan of the gone-but-not-forgotten King of Rock and Roll, you can’t ever really have too much Elvis. Right?
It’s way past late to observe the 75th anniversary of his birth (Jan. 8) and a tad early to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of his (alleged) demise (Aug. 13), but the folks at Miller Outdoor Theatre are going ahead anyway and celebrating Elvis Week by hosting what’s billed as “an incredibly authentic tribute” to The King by premier impersonator Donny Edwards (8 pm Friday) and screening three of his most popular star vehicles:
Jailhouse Rock – In sharp if not shocking contrast to most of The King’s later flicks, this 1957 musical melodrama actually attempts to package Presley as a semi-sensitive anti-hero with pronounced tendencies toward badassedness. After beating a man to death with his bare hands in a barroom brawl (which, to be fair, he didn’t start), construction worker Vincent Everett (Presley) spends a year behind bars as the cellmate of a washed-up country singer (Mickey Shaughnessy) who teaches him how to strum a guitar and carry a tune. Once released, Vincent romances a record company talent scout (Judy Tyler), becomes a chart-topping recording star, signs a contract to make Hollywood movies, and devolves into an unpleasantly selfish lout until his former cellmate shows up to give him a shot at redemption by punching him in the larynx. (Don’t worry: There’s no permanent damage.) Presley occasionally strains while doing some of the heavy dramatic lifting, but he makes all the right moves while tearing through the title song – in a classically campy, irresistibly exuberant production number that’s arguably his greatest ever on-screen moment – and confidently crooning such signature tunes as “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) I Don’t Care.” (8:15 pm Tuesday)
Blue Hawaii – Between 1956 and 1972, Presley made a total of 33 films, almost all them scrupulously formulaic, thinly plotted confections produced with assembly-line efficiency and regularity – sometimes, as many as three per year – and designed primarily to delight diehard fans and sell zillions of soundtrack albums. (Only the final two, 1970’s Elvis: That’s The Way It Is and 1972’s Elvis on Tour were concert documentaries.) He already had seven features to his credit by the time he made Blue Hawaii, but this 1961 musical comedy more or less set the mold for what most folks now think of as “an Elvis movie” – lightweight fun and frolic, often in an exotic locale, involving a lovable hunk who sings and sways his way through minimally daunting challenges while encountering only temporary impediments to happily-ever-aftering with a young lovely. Here, Presley plays Chad Gates, an ex-G.I. who, upon returning home to Hawaii, rejects a job with his father’s fruit company in order to hang with his beach buddies, surf and swim, and work as a tour guide in partnership with his curvy sweetie (Joan Blackman). It’s one of The King’s most ingratiating performances, in one of his most undemandingly pleasant movies, with (except for the title song and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”) some of his most forgettable songs. As his shrill, Southern-accented mother, Angela Lansbury – who, at the time, was scarcely ten years older than Presley – is almost as scary as she would be the following year as Laurence Harvey’s manipulative mom in The Manchurian Candidate. (8:15 pm Wednesday)
Viva Las Vegas -- Elvis Presley’s best movie? Maybe. His sexiest leading lady? Definitely. One year gobsmacking hormonally inflamed adolescent boys (and their fathers and grandfathers) with her slinky-sexy breakout performance in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Ann-Margret reunited with director George Sidney to co-star with The King as Rusty Martin, a Las Vegas hotel swimming instructor who falls for Lucky Jackson (Presley), a race-car driver who unluckily loses the money he needs for a new engine, and seeks employment as a hotel waiter while hoping to romance Rusty as a fringe benefit. Given the potent chemistry generated by the two stars, it’s very, very easy to believe all the rumors about an off-screen romance during the movie’s production. Presley is at the top of his game here, striking the perfect balance of smirk and sincerity while placating drunken Texas tourists with a medley of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Eyes of Texas,” and rambunctiously blowtorching his way through the title song in a low-concept, high-impact production number filmed in one continuous, swaggering take. Ann-Margret sings and dances with appropriate sizzle, and somehow manages to maintain a scintilla of wholesomeness even while the camera ogles her gams and backside. Sidney – who also directed Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945), Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946) and Frank Sinatra in Pal Joey (1957) – gives Viva Las Vegas much flashier visual pizzazz than most other directors ever attempted in Presley vehicles, and brings out the moody-bluesy best in his star during the latter’s soulful rendition of “I Need Somebody to Lean On.” It’s worth noting, however, that the veteran filmmaker remained unimpressed by The King. Indeed, when I interviewed him in 2000, Sidney dismissed Presley as “a very well-schooled puppet. He was well-trained. And he sold what he had.” And, mind you, he meant that as a criticism. (8:15 pm Thursday)
By the way: Admission is free to each of these Elvis Week attractions at Miller Outdoor Theatre. For that, all we can say is: Thank you very much, thank you very much.