20th Century Fox
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll would have turned 75 this year, so it’s another reason to celebrate the vast and long legacy of Elvis Presley in 2010. The title of this compilation doesn’t quite sum up the diverse lineup of films ranging from the maudlin to memorable. Indeed, seven films, crafted over a decade span the collection, starring Elvis as a cinematic performer, as opposed to his stage persona, is displayed here to varying results.
Presley had always wanted to become a film star, perhaps seeing a way for himself to branch out as an artist once his singles and albums were no longer dominating the charts. Indeed, the King went off to the Army for conscripted service in 1958, nearly ending his recording career. But when he returned, in theory, he slowly rebuilt his public persona by appearing in a number of B films, which did nothing to help cement his stature as a bonafide film star. Instead, these projects damaged his reputation, and did little, but make Presley appear to be picking up a paycheck, which his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, shoved in front of him without any consideration for his artistic integrity, or career path.
But Presley had his mid-period revenge by scoring a major commercial and critical triumph with his 1968 television program, forever known as the “Elvis Comeback Special.” Presley performed in a number of settings, most notably in a stripped-down, lean and tough small group setting with his original band, including the great Scotty Moore on guitar, and Elvis, somehow, someway, reminded the world how he earned his nickname in the first place. Rock ‘n’ roll should shock, provoke, and offer an alternative to the mainstream. Rock ‘n’ roll should be rooted in melody, with a firm hold on the necessity for improvisation, and a fair dash of devil-may-care sex and chaotic playfulness for good measure. Elvis brought all of those to the table in the Comeback Special, and it reinvigorated his career for a short period of time.
What this seven-film compilation does, mainly to a successful degree, is place Presley in the context of a film actor, attempting to play a role other than himself as a rock god, and working within the long-form, scripted format of someone else’s words. And that is where Presley was able to bring gold to most projects. Yes, there were many pure out and out dogs in the Elvis cinematic canon, but not necessarily in this collection. The King is shown in his first film role, Love Me Tender which also contained a huge single, and the key to the ‘musician-as-film-star’ future: have a great song, tell a simple story, get some good actors and actresses to surround the lead star, and away we go to eternity.
The birthday collection also contains some more gold, albeit borderline cheese, but firmly in the underappreciated B-movie genre. Presley is shown as a riverboat gambler in the winning Frankie and Johnny, which also stars Donna Douglas, a boxer in a near impossible situation in the action/drama/musical Kid Galahad, a millionaire posing as a poor water-ski instructor who is merely trying to learn the lessons of life the hard way,
co-starring Bill Bixby and Shelley Fabares in Clambake, and a hick literary genius who also happens to be quite the rebel with a pause for thought in Wild in the Country.
All of the films in 75th Birthday Collection feature Elvis doing what he does best: singing, playing guitar, and generally creating the rock frontman as immortal icon role for many imitators who tried in vain to capture some of the Presley charm and charisma to ignite their own artistic endeavors, but never quite measured up. The seven films are all shown in widescreen with excellent audio, and feature several special features, including a very interesting documentary about Elvis in Hollywood, and the overlord theatrics of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who often got Presley his film gigs, but also did much to treat the King more as a prostitute, instead of someone who could have been a great film actor if given the right material, and the proper sense of a patient artistic destiny over a long period. Instead, the film buff is left with a mixed bag of Presley cinematic goods, but these seven films do a pretty good job, at a very reasonable price, of showing what he did do with the work that was provided to him. Always the consummate professional, the spirit of Elvis somehow endures—75 years and counting.