8/17/2010

Blu-ray Review: Elvis Blu-ray Collection (Jailhouse Rock; Viva Las Vegas; Elvis on Tour)



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Elvis

Related Review:
Elvis 75th Anniversary Birthday Celebration


Jailhouse Rock (1957)



For a man who lived to entertain, I can't think of a better way to celebrate the King's debut on the MGM studio lot than to have had the reigning legend of cinematic song and dance, Singin' in the Rain's Gene Kelly appear on set and burst into applause after seeing the now iconic musical title number of Jailhouse Rock in a run-through rehearsal.

Having incorporated numerous Presley hip-shaking movements into that sequence in addition to offering Elvis a chance to play his most dangerous part yet as a Quentin Tarantino described “surly, mean, nasty, rude” definition of “rockabilly,” it's no wonder Jailhouse Rock has become so synonymous with the King that it was chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2004.

While his subtle debut in Love Me Tender had fared well with fans and critics alike, 1957's Jailhouse Rock was not just the first but arguably the best Presley MGM film. Director Richard Thorpe's black and white effort boasted not only a complicated screenplay featuring multi-faceted characters but also showcased Presley's range as an actor which was often wasted in far too many “boy meets girl” flirting, singing, dancing and romancing movies that followed.

Sadly however, the King refused to watch Jailhouse Rock as well as his previous picture Loving You because they featured two women who died shortly after their completion, consisting of Rock star leading lady Judy Tyler and Presley's own beloved mother who'd been onscreen in Loving.

And while it's understandable that the movies may have hit a bit too close to home for Presley himself, perhaps the reason that Rock in particular managed to work so amazingly well is because it seemed to come from such a personal place to which Presley could relate and transfer into his performance.



Although it certainly wasn't the only punch that Presley would deliver onscreen, Jailhouse Rock's opening bar fight resulted in more than just rescuing a woman from the advances of a man. After his character Vince Everett gets caught up in his temper and lands one blow too many -- accidentally killing another man -- he's sent to the big house for manslaughter.

Finding an unlikely mentor and surrogate father figure in his cell mate, a former country music singer way past his prime in the form of Hunk Haughton (Mickey Shaughnessy), Vince soon learns to play the guitar and begins making plans to go on the road with Hunk upon his release. However, when a TV network prompts the warden to throw “a party in the county jail,” Everett and “the prison band” are there and they begin "to wail,” as he croons a beautiful song that generates him the type of fan mail befitting of...well, the King.

Joining forces with Tyler's brainy beauty, a music promoter and talent scout named Peggy Van Alden, Vince begins shopping his demo all over town but after his uniquely sexy take on hitting the notes is copied by a popular, safe, cookie cutter musician, Vince and Peggy form their own record company and build his career from the ground up. And throughout his single-minded determination for wealth and power regardless of how many people he needs to cut down on his upward climb, Peggy and Vince fight the attraction between them with their resolve to keep things professional especially given Vince's penchant for insensitivity, self-absorption along with his world class sense of entitlement.

Yet even though viewers realize precisely what will happen by the time it fades to black, screenwriter Guy Trosper (working from a story by Nedrick Young) consistently impresses us with his refusal to settle with the type of first draft work from which Presley's later films would suffer. More specifically, Rock avoids predictability concerning Hunk's eventual reunion and his evolving relationship with Vince on the outside in addition to the final twist that leads to Vince's wake-up call when it comes to the way he's treated Peggy since day one.

Couple this with first rate performances from its main ensemble cast especially the young Judy Tyler who left us much too soon, blended together with Presley's daring embrace of darker material as the gorgeous rock 'n roller donned stripes to become music's rebel with a cause and you're left with an Elvis classic that fully deserves being appreciated on an overall cinematic level and not just in terms of Presley pictures.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)



Whereas Jailhouse Rock excelled at showcasing Presley's promise as an actor, Viva Las Vegas served as one of the King's most quintessentially '60s splashy MGM Elvis musical confections.

Reuniting with his Bye Bye Birdie star Ann-Margaret, acclaimed director George Sidney (Pal Joey, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate) managed to get an unlimited amount of mileage out of the sizzling sexual chemistry shared between the two leads, making their onscreen professions of motor revving race car driver (Elvis) and smoking hot swimming instructor and pool manager (Ann-Margaret) seem especially fitting.

And sure enough it's all the two could do to keep their hands off of one another offscreen which infuriated his wife Priscilla when word and far too many photos spread back to Graceland. With this in mind, it's extremely easy to predict that soon after Grand Prix driver Lucy Jackson (Presley) meets Swedish siren Ann-Margaret's sweet-natured Rusty Martin, her resolve that she's “one gal [he'll] never get,” will disappear as soon as the two share a dance.

And dance they do in the production number filled Viva which finds Elvis singing even more than usual onscreen in some true toe-tappers, offering us his own rendition of Ray Charles' “What'd I Say” along with the sensational show-stopping title track which was filmed in a single take with only one camera, illustrating his high degree of perfectionism as a performer.

Sadly however it's bogged down by its one-dimensional screenplay from otherwise talented Shadow of a Doubt scribe Sally Benson perhaps best known for her stories which inspired MGM's Meet Me in St. Louis.

And while the admittedly corny and forgettable Las Vegas doesn't offer anything new in the realm of Elvis pictures, it nonetheless entertains the hell out of us from the confines of his traditional fast-paced rhythm and racing paradigm.



Once dubbed “the female Elvis,” sultry Ann-Margaret is on sex kitten overload. She dives headfirst from her initially wholesome Esther Williams style introduction into an approach that goes beyond Marilyn Monroe's innocent pin-up into more aggressively carnal terrain, growling like a tiger at the camera while never failing to shake her moneymaker even when she's walking in a straight line.

To this end, it hinges on camp at times, abandoning the cinematically refreshing approach of Elvis musical realism in the “Viva” number with some laughable montages as the characters undergo endless costume and scenery changes in a single date straight out of various sound stages off the MGM backlot.

All the same, while it's just as impossible to take seriously as other Presley productions of that particular decade and George Sidney's ambitious nature to cram a dozen pictures into one gives it a bit of a variety show feel, Viva Las Vegas still remains a sunshine bright work of escapism. And in this extraordinary high definition collection that shows us three sides of the King, it's augmented even more with a diamond flawless Blu-ray transfer that races into your living room with vivid colors, scintillating chemistry and pitch-perfect musical numbers.

Elvis on Tour (1972)



Whether it's Broadway or Hollywood and you're an actor or a singer, all entertainers know that the show must go on and that it did for Elvis over the course of this 1972 tour which took the King through fifteen cities in fifteen nights.

Although he'd been struggling with weight and health issues as well as the end of his marriage to Priscilla Presley, just two months after the two separated, the fifteen one-night stands of wildly successful and frequently sold out series of concerts were documented in Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge's Golden Globe award winning follow up to 1970's concert film Elvis: That's the Way It Is.

The thirty-third and final motion picture to feature Presley, Elvis on Tour was also the only one of his works to receive an award. In a post-Woodstock, pre-MTV world of shortening attention spans, '50s nostalgia as well as stadium arena rock shows, Elvis on Tour is at times as admittedly over-the-top as its subject was during this era.

Before Madonna made reinvention trendy, Elvis abandoned the sexy kung fu black leather get-up he'd donned in the '68 Comeback Special. On Tour, he moved into a cheesy Vegas lounge act worthy phase of oversized gold belts, bedazzled leisure jumpsuits, large sunglasses, scarves, and capes made to give the illusion of eagle's wings as though he could soar off the stage before the announcer proclaimed that “Elvis has left the building.”

Yet despite this rather stylishly unfortunate period in the life of the King that is sadly copied to no end by Elvis impersonators around the globe to this day, Elvis Presley proved in this roughly ninety minute work that he still had the voice to thrill and looks to kill.

In more than twenty tunes he performs during the film both onstage with his incredibly talented ensemble of backup singers and musicians as well as off the stage in rehearsals, hallways or in the car, Presley revisits the classic rockabilly number one records that first made him a star in addition to tackling the work of his contemporaries in some inspired covers.

To this end, Elvis blends together songs to create unexpected medleys that lead from rhythm and blues into gospel and from nearly operatic ballads that find him playing with his musical techniques by hitting notes one wouldn't naturally assume would fall into his range.

And although the film's distracting rapid edits detract from the power of his vocal instrument by fixating far too heavily on screaming, lust-filled women of all ages in the audience rather than simply letting us kick back and enjoy the concert, overall it's a historic and vital work for Elvis fans to watch him dazzle thousands of adoring attendees in his last cinematic portrait.

Containing some vintage, nostalgic montages utilizing photos, videos and Ed Sullivanfootage supervised by Woodstock crew member turned filmmaker Martin Scorsese -- while the endless split screen approach of Elvis on Tour has dated this '72 release, the wonderfully crisp HD audio soundtrack enhanced on this Blu-ray disc is proof that for true Elvis fans, the show continues to go on.



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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.