Viva Las Vegas January 15, 2015
Viva Las Vegas is so winning, and so immediately alluring, that it only seems to take about two seconds to work its delirious magic. To be fair, those two seconds only consist of lazily hitting the play button only to immediately hear Elvis Presley’s iconic crooning of the title tune. After those two seconds end and we’re lifted into a Technicolor cloud of 1960s pop art smoke, we are amazed by the aerial shots of a nighttime Las Vegas, all neons, all gaudy, and all fun. We feel welcomed.
Presley has made plenty of vehicles, varying from godawful to brightly enjoyable, but it doesn’t take long to realize that Viva Las Vegas won’t be another It Happened at the World’s Fair or a Change of Habit. Simply, you can’t have Ann-Margret and George Sidney at your side and expect to fall down with an echoey thud.
Few musicians have made it as big as Elvis Presley — there are only a handful who can admit they’ve had a successful music career, a profitable acting streak, and have remained as globally recognizable as Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, or God himself. By casually uttering the word “Elvis,” you evoke a tidal wave of feelings. For most, he’s a hero, a connoisseur of jubilant sentimentality. We don’t automatically think of 1977 Elvis, fat, pill-addicted, hopeless and dying — we think of Jailhouse Rock Elvis, Viva Las Vegas Elvis.
Viva Las Vegas is certainly his finest hour in film. It epitomizes everything we love about him, but it also stands alone as a better than average movie musical. It bursts with color and talent, and has a rock ’n’ roll edge that makes it a hell of a lot less annoying than those clichéd romps than make sure to have at least one dramatic scene where a character sits by a windowsill and pours their heart out to no one.
Presley plays Lucky Jackson, a race car-driver aiming to compete in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. Coming from Los Angeles, he has all the materials needed to become a champion except for a new motor, and a girl to wear on his arm when he receives the grand prize. But people named Lucky Jackson don’t walk around only to discover that they are actually unlucky and should instead be referred to as Unlucky Jackson; since they look like Elvis and have Elvis’ talent, they, more often than not, will find a way to buy a new motor and win an all-American girl.
The skirt of Part B doesn’t take too long to track down and ultimately chase. It belongs to Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), a shapely swimming instructor who isn’t just a swimming instructor but is also a singer, dancer, and, as we discover in a locale jumping courtship montage, an excellent shot. She has it all. Lucky wants Rusty, and Rusty wants Lucky. Could things be better?
Enter Conflict #1: Lucky accidentally loses all the money that would have paid for his car engine, forcing him to become a waiter at the same hotel Rusty works for (though you would think that, at some point, Lucky would realize his immense singing talent and ditch his foremost ambitions). Enter Conflict #2: Rusty is so frightened by the idea of the dangers of race-car driving that she presents Lucky with an ultimatum — he can pick racing or he can pick her, but he certainly can’t have both.
If Viva Las Vegas’ story sounds clichéd, then maybe that’s a good thing. It isn’t the story that matters. What matters is Presley and Ann-Margret, and the way Sidney frames them in every shot. Presley has acted with Nancy Sinatra, Mary Tyler Moore, and Ursula Andress, but no one matches his universal appeal as well as Margret. With her flaming red hair and larger-than-life personality, she is less of a love interest and more of a force of nature, sometimes so off the walls that she upstages Presley himself. Their chemistry is so powerful that if one is alone in a scene, it doesn’t bear that same energy that fills the room when they’re together. Sidney drenches Viva Las Vegas in a visual style that is almost deliberately artificial: the clothing is only ever hued with loud primary colors, the lighting sometimes resembles a stage show brightened by traffic lights, and the scenery looks like something out of a brochure. But all the glistening duplicity makes the film even more confident and self-aware — it doesn’t feel like an average Elvis vehicle because it has a nailed down tone and look that gives it an irrepressibly specific temperament.
With 12 songs on the soundtrack to boot, it’s impossible for Viva Las Vegas to lose. Can anything this much fun, with Elvis Presley at its center, really lose? A-