Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Rocktober: 'Jailhouse Rock' (1957)

Despite his connection to my hometown of Las Vegas and his pop-cultural importance, I'd never seen an Elvis Presley movie until watching Jailhouse Rock. Presley movies seem sort of like the From Justin to Kelly of their time, churned out quickly to capitalize on the popularity of a teen idol. But Jailhouse Rock is the most highly regarded and, along with Viva Las Vegas, the most recognizable, and it has endured as a classic beyond its opportunistic origins. Although, really, I would imagine that most people only know one scene from Jailhouse Rock, the performance of the title song, which is every bit as electrifying and indelible as any of Presley's best moments. It's a creatively staged, almost impressionistic production number, with a style that prefigures music videos, and the song itself is a catchy barn-burner.

The rest of the movie is kind of a dud, though, with a flat, mumbly performance from Presley as a sullen jerk who becomes a rock star almost in spite of himself. Not being familiar with anything about the movie other than the aforementioned performance, I was sort of surprised to see Presley's character, Vince Everett, spend only about 25 minutes of the movie in prison, and then move on to a fairly rote rags-to-riches story and a ho-hum romance. While in prison, he rather improbably gets to perform on a nationally televised prison variety show (or something like that), after he's just learned to play the guitar seemingly a week earlier.

Vince's entire career is a series of happy accidents like that, and Vince himself doesn't seem to care much about making music or performing. He's short-tempered and inconsiderate, and his romance with music promoter Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) involves him insulting her, ignoring her and at one point literally smashing his face into hers. Somehow this leads to their living happily ever after at the end, but only after Vince gets in a fistfight with his mentor/former cell mate, which nearly causes Vince to lose his voice. The movie is constructed out of those haphazard events, as Vince stumbles into success as a musician and an actor without seeming to have passion for anything but money.

Vince is presumably meant to have a heart of gold (he goes to jail for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight while defending a woman's honor), but Presley's performance never makes him seem more than immature and petty, and the movie ends abruptly without anything resembling a redemptive story arc. Watching that wonderful production number midway through the movie, it's easy to see how Presley could be mesmerizing onscreen, but nothing else in the movie comes close to matching it.

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