Elvis fans get it. To many, he’s a joke, an object of kitsch, an icon of eras that seem long ago and feel far away. And there is something to that. The King is often remembered as he had become when he died: bloated by hard living and poor maintenance, dwelling in staggering vulgarity in his Memphis mansion, a telethon cliché of Las Vegas at the lowest point. In many ways, Elvis departed as the punchline of his own joke — as crass as the gold spangles on his white jumpsuit, as isolated as the private plane christened with his daughter’s name.
It was a quick 20 years from Elvis’ rise to fame to his death in infamy. He came from the humblest of beginnings, as the sole surviving twin born in a shack at the height of a Tupelo winter. From that, he merged hard work with the rhythms of the southern music he grew up with to become a founding father of rock ‘n roll. He became the most famous entertainer in the world, co-creating rock ‘n roll music while inventing the big-ticket rock and roll icon. Elvis became known as The King of Rock and Roll, and, just like Frank Sinatra, and before that, Bing Crosby, he had a notable career in the movies. Here — in honor of the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death on August 16, 1977 — are five films that embody the swivel, sneer, and star-power of Elvis Presley, Movie Star.
Elvis 56 may be the historian’s go-to documentary of Elvis’ ascent but Jailhouse Rock tells the tale even better by fictionalizing it and setting it to a backbeat. The film is one of Hollywood’s first attempts to capitalize on rock ‘n roll’s potential with a young movie audience as it maneuvers the King into what is clearly intended to be the same graduating class as James Dean. Everything that made Elvis a star is present in Jailhouse Rock. He’s photogenic and beyond charismatic as he brings rock’s rebellious spirit to a premium studio film.
The story draws upon Elvis’ rise to fame by placing him into scrapes that include jail time and dishonorable management, even as the film shows the studio’s dream of what Elvis Presley could’ve become. Elvis made other solid films at the beginning of his movie career — King Creole was helmed by no less an A-lister than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) — but Jailhouse Rock is the best, presenting an incipient legend at the crux of the rock revolution.
It’s easy to mock Elvis’ pop flicks, but as money-makers, they were as reliable as his gyrating hips. No film franchise was ever more formulaic than the Elvis movie of the 1960s. It seems as if they wrote themselves by combining a topical treatment (such as squares vs. hippies) and a travelogue atmosphere (like Hawaii or Acapulco) at a mod party with groovy chicks go-go dancing and rad dudes vrooming motors. The peripherals changed along the way, but Elvis was always front and center. The three best of these rock ‘n roll romances — Viva Las Vegas, Speedway, and Clambake — also present the triumvirate of Elvis’s greatest leading ladies: Ann-Margret, Nancy Sinatra, and Shelley Fabares respectively matching the King move for move, bouffant to pompadour. Onscreen, Elvis’ moody young man of the ‘50s took seriously his obligation to give the audience what it wanted. And so he did, providing plenty of musical numbers and smoldering close-ups for his fans to exchange ticket money for 90 minutes of fun, foolishness, and swoon.
But perhaps Elvis’ greatest screen appearance is as a ghost. While he was definitely deceased when Mystery Train was shot, The King’s presence informs every vibe of Jim Jarmusch’s moody masterpiece, saturating the shadowy corners of a Memphis that is derelict, virtually deserted, weedy. Jarmusch anchors his arid storytelling in a fleabag motel through which a troika of foreigners pass while linked by the same voices on all-night radio. Mystery Train is atmospheric, dense, even rhythmic, a kind of style thesis about how a dead legend lives on. With Elvis’ spectre as its literal and symbolic spine, Mystery Train retrofits the ghost story as a tale about cultural worship, its impact, and its aftermath. As the titular mystery train pulls out of the station, the character’s lives have been affected, some dramatically, some subtly. Mystery Train embodied the arty edges of cinema upon its release — it’s fair to guesstimate that along with Blue Velvet and sex, lies and videotape, this flick was instrumental in getting more Gen X kids to film school than any other. You might even argue that Mystery Train ranks as the most impactful Elvis flick of them all.
Photo Credit: Image of Elvis Presley courtesy Getty Images