Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight (2005), Reagan (2011) and The House I Live In (2012). His latest, The King, focuses on Elvis Presley as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:
“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–John Waters
Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.
Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), Ethan Hawke (a Continue reading “THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)→
As a pop music star, Elvis Presley had an unparalleled career (although it is questionable whether his music is much listened to today outside of Memphis). His film career, although financially successful, was a different story altogether—remarkable only in the thirty-plus (mostly wretched) films produced in a scant dozen years. Among the worst, which is saying a lot, are two near the end of his film run. Itching to get back into live performance, Presley was merely fulfilling his MGM contract at this point and, barely mastering any enthusiasm, took whatever script was handed him.
Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, directed by frequent Presley collaborator Norman Taurog and scripted by Dan Greenburg from his novel “Kiss My Firm but Pliant Lips”) is a like the Rankin and Bass cartoon “Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974) in that it contains a single scene ofnaive surrealism at its most jaw-dropping, “WTF were they thinking?” level, which almost makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.
The Pelvis is a photojournalist here named Greg, working at a “Playboy”-like outfit. Of course, that means he’s going to be taking lots of pinup pics. The blatant sexism would seem woefully dated, except we’ve elected a lot of Neanderthal politicos lately (from both sides), and that unfortunately renders the film more contemporary than it was a few years ago. Greg’s practically stalked by a wacky, bikini-clad gal who might be named Bernice… or Alice… or Suzy…don’t ask. I’m still not sure, but whoever she is, she’s played by Michele Carey, one of those anonymous eye-candy actresses you may recall seeing a lot. (Carey is primarily known for this and the 1967 John Wayne/Howard Hawks oater El Dorado). Bernice also has a Great Dane named Albert who will become for this film what Mr. Heat Miser was for “Year Without A Santa Claus.” Rounding off a weird cast is prolific character actor Sterling Holloway (whom we recently saw as Professor Twiddle/Professor Quinn in “The Adventures of Superman”) as a milkman (don’t ask—I still don’t know why), Rudy Valle as a Hugh Heffner type (?), and Dick Sargent (best known as Darren #2 from “Bewitched”), who might be Bernice’s husband (just don’t ask).
Bernice and Albert run a close second to Glenn Close in the obsession department (although we’re never sure why Bernice is bonkers about Greg), which opens the door for a scene that…. forget “Magical Mystery Tour,” or even Presley’s “Little Egypt” and “Big Boss Man” numbers from his 1968 comeback special for a moment and embrace one of the most awkward moments of surrealism ever committed to celluloid. With Albert crashed in the baby playpen next to him, Greg, in baby blue silk PJs, has a dream about his furry companion, who is now a guy in a wrinkled dog suit with a disturbingly long, wagging tongue. Albert, standing on two legs, pushes Greg through a red door (Hell?), leading to the musical number “The Edge Of Reality,” in which the Pelvis, after falling through something, lands somewhere (a psychedelic wonderland?) and barely shakes while dancing with shirt-skirted gals (each one an avatar for Bernice and her split personalities)—and Albert, of course. The 60s color palette is choreographed to lyrics that couldn’t be more apt: “On the edge of reality she sits there tormenting me, the girl with the nameless face, where she overpowers me with fears that I can’t explain. She drove me to the point of madness, the brink of misery.”
After this all-too-brief and senseless vignette, Greg bonds with Albert and the two become “dune buggy riding pals!,” and it’s as dull as it sounds. Greg even falls for his fatal attraction, who might indeed be named Bernice. It’s all downhill after “The Edge of Reality,” possibly because reality is like that. The only other possible point of interest in the film (for those into that sort of thing) would be Presley’s spirited kung fu fight in the first quarter. What’s the motive for the fight? I have no idea, but Elvis gets to kick some ninja-clothed baddies—including bodyguard Red West, who eventually got the last laugh when he outed Elvis as a druggie in his 1977 tell-all book “Elvis: What Happened?” After experiencing “The Edge of Reality,” one might wish Elvis had done more drugs.
The surrealism of Easy Come, Easy Go (1967, directed by John Rich) isn’t as blatant, but how about this? Elvis plays a frogman (?!?) who sings a duet called “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” with Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester (!?!) He sings the gospel standard (the music he was best at) “Sing, You Children Sing” with hippies and beatniks. Those two numbers aside (along with scenes of scuba diving, if that’s your idea of entertainment), the remainder of Easy Come, Easy Go draws a blank.
“I’m watching this movie, it’s this picture about, uh… it’s really weird. It’s like the guy who took the acid or something, he smoked a marijuana or something before he wrote this picture…”—“The King,” speaking to an unknown party on his cell phone during the Bubba Ho-Tep DVD commentary
PLOT: Having giving up fame for a simple life and switched places with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, Elvis Presley is now an aging old man with a boil on his penis languishing in an East Texas retirement home. One of his fellow retirees is Jack, an African American who insists that he is actually ex-President John Kennedy. The two old men discover that a mummy is haunting the corridors of the rest home, feeding on the souls of the elderly, and together they hatch a plan to defeat the creature.
Bubba Ho-Tep is a faithful adaptation of a novella by cult horror writer Joe R. Lansdale first composed for the now out-of-print anthology “The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-mortem,” which also contained stories and essays by Roger Ebert, Lou Reed, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.
The budget was reported to be between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Although there is a flashback concert scene in the film, the producers could not afford to license any actual Elvis songs, so you only hear generic Vegas-showroom-style intro music. Similarly, the scenes from the “Elvis” movie marathon seen on television are just cleverly-edited stock footage, with no actual Elvis films ever glimpsed.
The end credits announce a prequel called Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Although intended as a joke, fan interest in such a movie ran so high that Coscarelli, Lansdale and Bruce Campbell tried to get it made, although it never came together. Campbell has reportedly lost interest in the project and it is presumably as dead as Elvis.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Aging Elvis, in his trademark rhinestone suit and cloak and a walker, marching off to face off against a mummy.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The only way Bubba Ho-Tep could have failed to be weird is if it lacked faith in its premise of a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting a mummy in a rest home, and instead turned the tale into a self-congratulatory parody. Thankfully, everyone involved takes the story and characters at face value, honoring the oddness and humanity of the inherently absurd situation.
Hollywood’s model of taking pop music phenomenons and placing them in film productions began with Bing Crosby and accelerated with Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, producers were usually clueless as to how to tap the stars’ prodigious talents. The model petered out in Madonna’s whisper of a film career. In between Madonna and Bing came the biggest and perhaps most disappointing of them all: Elvis Presley. Tinseltown did attempt to tailor its vehicles to Presley, which may have been one of its big missteps. Most critics and audiences concede that Presley’s early films were the best, though many might argue that is not saying much. Presley debuted in the Civil War era Western Love Me Tender (1956) with a supporting role, while Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) all had thinly disguised biographical elements. Yet, none of these films fully captured the unbridled energy and vitality seen in just a few moments of Presley’s documentary footage of the period. G.I. Blues (1960) began a deadly slide, placing the star in dumbed-down, misogynistic family fare. Blues reached its nadir with the king of rock and roll singing to a puppet.
Presley followed G.I. Blues with Flaming Star (1960), a progressive western, directed by that taut craftsman, Don Siegel. Presley desperately wanted a film career and envisioned one modeled after his film idol, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Siegel and the producers originally wanted Brando for Presley’s role of Pacer Burton. With Presley finally getting his chance at a Brandoesque role, he comes closest to the celluloid Elvis that he himself envisioned. Unfortunately, it was not what the American public wanted, and the result was a box office bomb, despite good critical reception. The public wanted Presley singing, not acting, and he only gets one song here (along with the title track). Despite the public indifference, Presley made another stab at dramatic acting in the Clifford Odets-penned Wild In The Country (1961). Miscasting aside, Presley, who was too seasoned to play a juvenile delinquent, gave a relatively good performance in a mediocre soaper. Again, the public did not respond, which signaled the star’s management team to take the reigns with Blue Hawaii (1961). This was Hollywood’s saccharine death kiss. A best-forgotten string of execrable movies followed, and it wasn’t until Presley left Hollywood that he became (briefly) vital again. With the “’68 Comeback Special” and several documentaries, Presley finally became an imposing film presence, simply by being the leading man in his own unique life. Of course, Vegas seduced the King, just as Hollywood did, but his second fall from grace was at least a more original and fascinating American parody.
Although Flaming Star is imperfect, it gets one aesthetic component of the Presley paradox: Siegel shrewdly pinpoints the desperation and conflict inherent within an ambitious artist seeking to overcome his white trash origins. Here, he transplants them to Elvis as a half-breed. There has long been an identification amongst some whites with the archaic image of Native American as savage. Rather than tailoring a vehicle to Presley’s public persona, Siegel gives the actor an identification point within an already framed narrative. Stepping into Brando territory, Presley gives a thoroughly convincing and enthusiastic performance, possibly his only one as a professional actor.
Presley and Siegel smartly and predominantly ignored the pop star’s fan base by tapping the star’s edginess and making him actually play a character in an ensemble. In the promo trailers, studio execs interpreted that “edge” as a shirtless Presley fighting a savage. The scene it’s culled from is actually brief, and renders the trailer grossly misleading. Rather, the real “edge” is Pacer nervously conversing through a door slat with unwelcome visitors, followed by his beating the hell out of two racists when they insult his mother Neddy (Delores del Rio). Siegel draws on Presley’s latent maternal fixation for the scene. (Interestingly, one of Presley’s most effective songs, amidst one too many Neil Diamond covers during his final John-Wayne-in-a-Shazam-cape phase was an intimate, maternal version of the rosary. Catering to the imagined mindset of the King’s alleged WASP fan base, Presley’s distributors usually omit it from the plethora of posthumously-released gospel compilations).
Presley’s acting in Flaming Star is simple and not bogged down with the type of dialogue he would have been ill-suited for. While Brando would have given an excellent performance, Presley delivers a commendably natural one. As a half breed, he has divided loyalties in this tale about racism. Thankfully, Siegel and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson do not lose focus. For the first and only time, Presley has no love interest. Here the trailers, again, were misleading, making it look as if a King was romantically entangled with a genie. Actually, Roslyn (Barbara Eden) is the “britches wearin'” girlfriend of brother Clint (Steve Forrest).
The entire Burton family is caught up in divided loyalties, and racism is seen from all sides. Neddy is shunned by her Kiowa tribe for having married the white man, Sam (John McIntire). Smartly, the film opens, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with an intimate look at the family, but it’s also a reason to show off Elvis singing. This is almost essential before the bleakness sets in.
An Indian massacre follows, which will eventually take victims beyond that single incident. Although the Burtons do not excuse the brutality of the Kiowas, they also refuse to be willing victims of community resentment and demonization. Hostilities quickly make their way to Neddy, even from friends and extended family, such as Roslyn. When the town doctor refers to an injured Neddy as “that woman” Presley responds: “That woman? Don’t she got a name, like white people?” Poignantly delivered, it’s one of his best acting moments, .
Flaming Star was shot on a modest budget, which is occasionally obvious (as in the day for night scenes). Siegel, as usual, is in his element with outdoor settings, regardless of funding constraints. Comparisons to The Searchers are inevitable, but while that film was grandiose (perhaps too much so), Flaming Star tells its smartly paced story in a far briefer running time, leaving no room for unnecessary distractions.
The life of Elvis Presley is “the” perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.
Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get. He grew up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.
Elvis, the dirt poor mama’s boy, filled his flights of fancy with whipped cream dreams of being a movie star more than anything else; but it was his voice, his extrovert sexual chemistry, and being in the right place at the right time, coupled with his insatiable, singular drive, and securing shrewd management, that catapulted him into the status of an American icon.
One element that is sorely missing from all of the films and documentaries on him was Elvis’ early sense of perfection in the recording studios. He often demanded up to forty takes on one song.
Elvis was one of the first and certainly the biggest artist whose career was built on eclecticism. The Elvis Presley persona was birthed from what he knew and what he wanted to be in his Walter Mitty-like romantic fantasies. Elvis was part Mahalia Jackson (his gospel recordings are second only to hers), part Dean Martin, part James Dean, part Marlon Brando, and part Rudolph Valentino. Later, both Sammy Davis and Liberace would be added to the mix.