Jailhouse Rock June 28, 2015
Nineteen-fifty-seven Elvis is arguably the best Elvis. He is twenty years away from his tragic Vegas years that culminated in his untimely death, ten from his failed marriage to Naked Gun staple Priscilla Presley, and one after his film debut, Love Me Tender. It shows an Elvis not yet let down by what life had to offer, an Elvis excited by his success and willing to smolder for the camera so long as it pleased his adoring fans.
Jailhouse Rock, his third film and his first for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, is a black-and-white musical drama that hardly paints its lead star as a saint. The majority of Elvis’ movies altered their then-controversial star into an ersatz Southern gentleman, a good guy so incapable of doing any wrong that all we could do was sit back, appreciate his presence, and savor his musical abilities. Jailhouse Rock all but shifts every preconceived notion regarding the star’s cinematic persona — here, he is a rough-and-tumble punk with a mean streak and a short attention span when it comes to women. It’s easier not to root for him here than it was in Viva Las Vegas, and that’s a problem when a film is so in love with its protagonist that every single character seems to wait on them hand and foot.
Missing from Jailhouse Rock is the sense of fun his other films carried on their shoulders; his best, 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, was so irresistibly colorful and spry it was impossible not to want to take a vacation in Elvis’ Vegas. And even his worst moments (most of his films were bad, so it’s best not to talk about them), were frothy, delectable pieces of escapist fluff that turned our frown upside down as they sneakily took George Washingtons out of our wallets. Since Jailhouse Rock plays it straight, with its borderline soap operatic drama, we find ourselves less chirpy and more down in dumps, wondering how our beloved King of Rock ’N’ Roll can really be a youth capable of manslaughter, how he can be capable of beating up every man who does him wrong, how he can ignore Judy Tyler as she gives him her love and a record deal. I would dramatically cry if I cared more; but a movie as clichéd and hard-bitten as this one doesn’t allow such emotions to pour out.
Elvis never had much talent as an actor, unlike Frank Sinatra, the previous generation’s go-to musical sex fiend, so most of his projects centered on his strengths — and as an actor, those said strengths were limited. He only seemed to shine with a mic in hand or when an Ann-Margret wannabe fell into his arms without much hesitation. Since Jailhouse Rock was only his third movie, Elvis’ inexperience in the film industry is more clear than it should be; he’s so stiff in his non-musical scenes that one can only wish there was a way to give talented people more of a personality when it came to selling themselves onscreen. But the musical sequences, as few and far between as they are, burn in the memory. We’ve all seen the number the film has become famous for, and, in the context of the movie, it harnesses nostalgic power unseen by his other films. I was entertained by Jailhouse Rock, but, in the end, it pays more attention to its star than the audience interested in its star. So it’s too bad the star isn’t much of an actor. Then we’d have something. C+