I was never a huge fan of Elvis, though I respect the legacy. His impact on rock and roll, and pop culture, is undeniable.
Elvis was at the pinnacle of his musical and star power until the Beatles. The Beatles changed everything. For me, and this is just my opinion, Elvis stopped evolving, but the world did not. Col. Parker did not seem to want Elvis to lead any kind of 1960s trends. It was safer, and more profitable, to keep Elvis away from trends and the growing gaps between the movements of the decade and the status quo. Elvis’ fan base was skewing older and more conservative. If you look at Elvis from the early to the late 1960s, he did not change much. Physically, his looks were the same, except his sideburns grew, yet he did not appear to age. When I see his films, unless I know the year it was released, I cannot tell most of them apart.
Consistency is how Col. Parker managed Elvis in creating the Elvis brand. Fans got what they wanted and expected. Like a product. I want my Raisin Bran to be the same each spoonful. When I visit Olive Garden, I want the chicken parm to taste like my mouth expects. Elvis, like every other pop icon is a product. If you wanted new and improved, you bought the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. If you wanted consistency, you dialed Elvis.
So, what is my point, besides pissing off a lot of Elvis fans? Elvis of the early to late 1960s is a very interesting period. It is well known that Elvis became tired of the movies and songs he was handed, and expressed this resentment in the recording studios for the soundtracks. His desire to move into substantive, dramatic roles was lost on those pulling the strings. He could not wait for his movie contract to be over.
I re-watched quite a few of his 1960s films. Sadly, the quality of the films declined over time, whereas he worked with veteran films directors and writers early on, by the later part of the decade he was working with television directors and the scripts were formulaic and retreads of previous films. When you compare Blue Hawaii or Viva Las Vegas to Clambake or Double Trouble, there is a noticeable drop-off in quality. True Elvis fans might not have noticed or did not care, although the films were making less money. Elvis was comfortable in front of the camera and he displayed the self-confidence to embellish the pre-fab characters he was asked to play. In Follow That Dream, in a courtroom scene, Elvis delivers a long, uninterrupted plea to the judge. It is quite impressive, not just the amount of dialogue, but he’s impassioned.
Mostly, Elvis was affable and playful on film, but he also stood his ground and easily brought toughness when required. From film to film, Elvis delivered what was expected. Sadly, he wanted more challenging roles that were not provided. The exception was Charro!, one of his last films, a moody Western and a departure from his clean-cut image. Elvis’ films are fun, silly and a reminder of more innocent times (while the world was changing).
From 1961 to 1969, Elvis focused on films and live concerts. Most of his albums were film soundtracks. When he wasn’t on the concert stage, he was on the film stage.
1961 Wild in the Country – Maybe his most challenging dramatic role. Had he continued with topnotch productions and material, we might be writing a much different story.
1961 Blue Hawaii – The template for what would follow until the format was threadbare. Lighthearted, great locale, pretty co-star, singing and dancing, bright and fun.
1962 Follow That Dream – Directed by Gordon Douglas and written by Charles Lederer, recognized as maybe Elvis’ funniest films. A fine light comedy performance.
1962 Kid Galahad – Former soldier becomes a boxer who the mob wants to take a dive. One of his better quality films, produced by the Mirisch Company with many character actors. Top-notch production values. The music was so-so.
1962 Girls! Girls! Girls! – A boat guide worker, he buys his boss’ boat that his father and he built. He has too many women in his life.
1963 It Happened at the World’s Fair – The drop of the World’s Fair in Seattle. A former crop duster he’s now trying to stay out of trouble, get his plane back, take care of a young girl and romance a nurse. Only Elvis.
1963 Fun in Acapulco – He works on a yacht in Acapulco who is fired but gets a job as a lifeguard. Great locale, cliff diving, bullfighting and romance.
1964 Kissin’ Cousins – Elvis is an army officer who tries to convince his family to build a base on their land. Elvis plays two roles. Great cast in a rather cheap looking film.
1964 Viva Las Vegas – Ann-Margret, sports car racing, classic title song, what else do you need. Best use of the Elvis movie formula. Surprisingly, there was not a full LP released from the film, only an EP which contained four songs. Disappointing considering the success of the film, although some of songs in the films were mediocre at best.
1964 Roustabout – Forced to work with a carnival, he tries to romance the boss’ daughter and kept a rival carnival owner from driving his boss out of business.
1965 Girl Happy – Elvis is a singer hired to look after a mobster’s daughter on spring break. Trouble and romance ensues.
1965 Tickle Me – A singing rodeo singer working at an expensive dude ranch. He gets involved with a fitness trainer who discovers gold that a corrupt sheriff and gang also wants.
1965 Harum Scarum – A movie star who is kidnapped by Arabs wanting him to pull off a real assassination. Pretty dreadful stuff here.
1966 Frankie and Johnny – Elvis is a riverboat gambler searching for his lucky redhead. Three attractive young women on hand.
1966 Paradise, Hawaiian Style – A charter flying service in Hawaii is the backdrop. Multiple romances in an exotic locale.
1966 Spinout – Singer and part-time race driver is pursued by three women. Lots to look at, generic story, but better than his usual role.
1967 Easy Come, Easy Go – Former frogman is a deep sea diver and nightclub singer and searches for lost treasure.
1967 Double Trouble – Singer in England gets wrapped up in larceny while romancing a young heiress. Filmmaking by the numbers, total lack or originality.
1967 Clambake – A millionaire’s son trades places with a ski instructor to see if women like him for himself or his money.
1968 Stay Away, Joe – Usually ranked as one of his worst films. He is a mixed race Native American who wants to help his impoverished people on the reservation. Lots of slapstick comedy. Hardly politically correct, but silly in a fun way.
1968 Speedway – Stock car racer is pursued by the IRS for back taxes. Nancy Sinatra and Bill Bixby costars.
1968 Live a Little, Love a Little – The Elvis character tries to hold down two jobs while keeping the romance up. Just the L.A. location. Pretty generic story and nothing flashy about it.
1969 Charro! – Elvis with long sideburns and unshaven. He plays a former outlaw framed for the theft of a Mexican canon and is on the run. A decent dramatic role that was too late in his career. No one saw the film. In the year of The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and True Grit, Charro! was nowhere close to where the genre was headed.
1969 The Trouble with Girls – Elvis manages a traveling troupe. This is an ensemble film, Elvis is just one of the characters in the story and he doesn’t have much to do.
1969 Change of Habit – Costarring with Mary Tyler Moore, Elvis plays an inner city doctor and she is a nun. This effort at a serious message film went unnoticed. This was his last feature film. Other films released this year were Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
Elvis and Mary Tyler Moore in Change of Habit; Paul Brinegar and Elvis in Charro!
Elvis Studio Albums
Elvis reached quite a few singles not originally on albums. Later, they were part of a series of albums collecting his singles. “Love Letters”, “Tell Me Why”, “Ask Me”, “Viva Las Vegas”, “Devil in Disguise”, “Good Luck Charm”, “His Latest Flame” and “I Feel So Bad.”
Something for Everybody (1961)
Pot Luck (1962) – Something unrelated to movies, original material and covers. “Kiss Me Quick” was a top 40 track, but nothing too special.
Elvis for Everyone! (1965) – A diverse collection including some tracks not used from his Sun Records days. It topped the pop album chart for three weeks.
How Great Thou Art (1967) – Elvis focusing on his love of gospel. “Crying in the Chapel” actually reached number 3 on the charts.
From Elvis in Memphis (1969) “In the Ghetto” and interesting choice for Elvis, climbed to number 3. The album was praised for its serious, mature and soulful sound. Elvis recorded in Memphis with a different band, studio and producer. The albums is still ranked among his finest work.
Elvis Soundtrack Albums
Blue Hawaii (1961) – “Can’t Help Falling in Love” reached number 2 on the charts, not bad!
Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) – “Return to Sender” was a number 2 charting single.
It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) – As hokey as the film premise. “One Broken Heart” almost cracked the top 10.
Fun in Acapulco (1963) – A bit of Latin influence, “Bossa Nova Baby” was a top 10 hit.
Kissin’ Cousins (1964) The title song reached number 12.
Roustabout (1964) The title track did not chart.
Girl Happy (1965) “Do the Clam” (yes, that is the title) peaked at number 21, and “Puppet on a String” did even better.
Harum Scarum (1965)
Frankie and Johnny (1966) – Pretty cheesy stuff to fit the period of the film. The title song did reach number 25, but elsewhere in the universe Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds.
Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) – Warmed-over retreads from his other films.
Spinout (1966) – Actually some heat and charm on this soundtrack. “Spinout”/”All That I Am” reached the top 40.
Double Trouble (1967) – More cheese whiz. Meanwhile, Sgt. Pepper and Disraeli Gears turned the world on. “Blue River” barely nudged the top 100.
Clambake (1967) – Only about half the songs are from the film. The rest, filler. “Big Boss Man” and “Guitar Man” charted but did not sniff the top 40.
Speedway (1968) – The lowest selling of his soundtracks. Nancy Sinatra couldn’t even help. Electric Ladyland and Music From Big Pink were entertaining listeners.
Elvis Live Albums
Elvis (NBC TV Special) Released: November 22, 1968 RIAA: Platinum – The soundtrack from Elvis’ comeback television special. This reinvigorated his faltering career. The mature Elvis who still had the youthful spark. “If I Can Dream” from the soundtrack reached number 12 on the chart and “Memories” number 35.
From Memphis to Vegas / From Vegas to Memphis Released: October 14, 1969 RIAA: Gold – Two different albums, one a live set from his Vegas performances. The other album is additional material recorded from the Memphis sessions that produced From Elvis in Memphis.
Just when many people thought Elvis was passé, his 1968 television special proved that he still had it. What you saw was missing from most of his 1960s films, and his music had more energy and heart that what he was releasing on record. While the show was fairly scripted and blocked, this was the Super Bowl for Elvis. He was primed and ready. He was not a relic of the 1950s.
Sadly, Elvis in the 1970s would be an uneven mixture of success, oddity and decline. I would prefer to look instead to the homogenized 1960s, that was time in a bottle.