Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!

I remember where I was when I first heard Elvis Presley died. It was in a pizzeria in Cape May, NJ, surrounded by my brothers and various cousins (I happen to have a lot of those; there must have been about 15 of us in all down there). My family used to summer in Cape May (it's way down at the tip of the Jersey Shore) and we'd meet up with my aunts and uncles and cousins for about a week and do the whole beach/miniature golf/skeeball thing and they are always precious memories associated with those trips. That night we were all sent out to buy pizza by ourselves while our folks went out and did whatever the heck it was adults would do back then (fondue party?) and as we sat in the pizza joint we could actually hear the news over the radio, just like in the movies. I may only have been 7 at the time and my knowledge of celebrities may have been a little limited, but I sure as hell know who Elvis was and even to a kid like me the whole thing was more than a little jarring. Elvis... dead? It was a big a deal to all us kids and when Graucho Marx died the following day (a fact remembered by few, except for Rob Zombie) it started a series of celebrity deaths during our Cape May visits that became a running joke amongst the cousins (the only other one I remember was Yankees catcher Thurman Munson back in '79, a big event for me).

The legend of Elvis continues to loom large over all of us, and when you consider how it's been 30 years since his passing and he's still massively popular, then you have to assume there's a reason for that. I will freely admit to being an Elvis fan (didn't you read the Norman Taurog piece?), but even non-fans have to see that the guy was just a talent unlike any other. It wasn't so much the way he sang, the way he moved or what he sang, it was the whole package; Elvis was the consummate performer and a true original. Many will say that he just took from the African-American R&B performers of the era, but I can't think of a single one from that era like Elvis. Besides, he was just as influenced by hillbilly and gospel music and his melding of those forms of music was unique and still feels timeless over 50 years later. He also had a natural charisma that only born performers have, something about him that just drew you to him and made you his fan (I remember Walter Matthau, who co-starred with him in KING CREOLE, saying something to that effect in a mid-90's interview, so it ain't just me). It's something that a lot of performers work their entire careers to try and obtain, but for Elvis it all came naturally and it's still damn impressive. But even more incredible was the life he led, by equal amounts amazing and tragic, with all the highs (the '50s, '68 to '70) and the lows (the last few years, especially) that would feel like a bad, trashy novel if it wasn't actually true. His life and times have already been recounted endless numbers of times (no better than in Peter Guralnick's Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love, two of the best books I've ever read and absolute must-reads) and it's obvious to me that he's one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th Century. Even Shakespeare couldn't come up with a life so equally inspiring and tragic as Elvis did himself.

Elvis was, of course, also an actor, and a good one when given the chance. Part of his problem was that he wanted to be Marlon Brando or James Dean, so he would try to play brooding, sullen characters sometimes, which was not really his strong suit. In a sense, he was best playing the role that he always played, which was Elvis, and when you see him in nominal pictures like Taurog's BLUE HAWAII or G.I. BLUES (which are actually pleasant little pictures), they survive more on that effortless charm than anything else. But watch him in VIVA LAS VEGAS, where he has Ann-Margaret to play off of (and a much better selection of songs to sing) and he really is something. The two were a more than combustionable pair (onscreen and off, the legend goes) and it obviously put Elvis more on his game than in previous pictures (he didn't quite have the same chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck in ROUSTABOUT earlier the same year) and made for a film that I consider to be one of the few great films that is not actually great (I think you get what I mean by that). I have a perverse fascination with a lot of those later pictures (especially LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE, the film which gave the world both "A Little Less Conversation" and a scene where Elvis acts opposite an actor playing a dog) and if you look at the likes of CHARRO and THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS you can at least feel Elvis giving it a post-'68 comeback try, which is more than can be said for the likes of DOUBLE TROUBLE. But yeah, Elvis did appear in some classic stinkers (the scene where he "cures" an autistic girl in CHANGE OF HABIT is stunning in its idiocy), but he also appeared in legitimately good films like Michael Curtiz's KING CREOLE and Don Siegel's FLAMING STAR, so you members of the "Elvis movies suck" crowd can just stuff it as far as I'm concerned. I can understand if the movies aren't that great, but to say someone this talented couldn't make it as an actor is just plain ignorant. Trust me, the guy had it.

I've never been to Memphis, much less Graceland, but if I ever get to go I will most certainly pay my respects to a guy who, like it or not, changed the world. A simple country boy from Memphis who could sing and perform like nothing ever seen before or since; someone whose life is one part miracle, one part textbook example of how to avoids the pitfalls of fame, this is a guy who, despite his many shortcomings, is also worth celebrating. Someone of his talent is pretty rare in this life and is always worth remembering (even in chocolate form).

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