Warner Bros. // 1964 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // September 17th, 2007
Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret): "I'd like you to check my motor. It whistles."
Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley): "I don't blame it."
Elvis movies aren't for everyone. They're cheesy, and they have flimsy plots. Even Colonel Parker viewed them as primarily moneymaking endeavors. That said, they have plenty of adoring fans and, well, who doesn't want the pure escapism of a movie like Viva Las Vegas from time to time?
This classic 1964 Elvis movie has all the fun of a trip to Vegas without the incriminating photos and timeshare pitches. Silly, frenetic, and fun, it has some great songs, a fantastic leading lady, and -- at 85 jam-packed minutes -- moves along so quickly you won't miss little things like plot and character development. Whether you're one of the King's loyal subjects, or just want to see what the "Elvis movie" craze is all about, you can't go wrong with Viva Las Vegas.
With arguably the best director, co-star, songs, script, and location of any Elvis movie, Viva Las Vegas captures all the charm, fun, and flair of his Hollywood years. As the approximate midpoint of Elvis's film career, it's like a bridge between his rockabilly roots and the late-career "comeback" which might not have happened had it not been for a certain neon-lit city.
Viva Las Vegas: Deluxe Edition -- released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Presley's death -- sports sharp and colorful remastered video, a new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix, a 24-page photo booklet, and extras that educate as well as entertain.
Elvis plays "Lucky" Jackson, a singing, gambling racing champion, who is looking to beat rival Italian racer Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova, Gidget Goes to Rome) in the upcoming Las Vegas Grand Prix -- if only he can win enough money to buy the motor he needs to finish his custom-built car. While trying unsuccessfully to woo the beautiful Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret, Tommy), Lucky accidentally loses his winnings down a pool drain and is forced to work as a waiter to settle his hotel bill. With time ticking down to the Grand Prix, will Lucky be able to win the girl and the race?
For many people, Elvis is Las Vegas: the sideburns, the glasses, the jumpsuits, the legions of impersonators twisting their pelvises (pelvi?) down The Strip. But it wasn't always that way. Elvis's 1956 attempt to conquer Vegas -- two weeks at the New Frontier Hotel's Venus Room -- was a bona-fide bust. Instead of the usual screaming teens, a tuxedo-clad audience sat quietly through his set. This was old Vegas, and they wanted the grown-up entertainment of Frank Sinatra, not the rock 'n' roll antics of some hillbilly kid.
Despite the lumps he took there, Elvis loved Las Vegas and everything its non-stop party atmosphere had to offer. He and his entourage (known as the "Memphis Mafia") visited often during their trips from L.A. to Tennessee. Elvis's genuine love for Vegas comes through in the character of Lucky Jackson, and is one of the reasons this movie stands out among all the films he made. Compared to the wide world of cinema, Viva Las Vegas is a silly movie with a paper-thin plot. Compared to other Elvis movies, though, it tops just about every category:
Best director: At the very least, George Sidney (Anchors Aweigh) was the best musical director to work on one of Elvis's movies. Known for directing MGM musicals, Sidney's experience shines through in Viva's musical numbers, which are marked by thoughtful staging and dynamic camera work, especially during the talent show sequence.
Best co-star: Ann-Margret -- who had just worked with George Sidney in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie -- stands out as Elvis's most memorable female co-star, matching him beat for beat throughout the movie. In just about every way, she's his equal (if not his superior): as a singer, dancer, and actor, and in raw sexuality. In fact, Colonel Parker was so worried about Elvis being upstaged he insisted all but one of Presley and Margret's planned duets be turned into solo performances for Elvis. Off-screen, Margret and Presley hit it off famously. They had so much in common that Margret came to be known as "the female Elvis." Whatever relationship they did or didn't have during the making of the movie, their obvious chemistry spills onto the screen, making their fictional romance believable despite the script.
Best script: Elvis movies are more about the songs than the story, and Viva Las Vegas is no exception -- it's practically the definition of breezy. Still, the script -- written by Sally Benson, whose short stories were the basis for the film Meet Me in St. Louis -- moves along at a brisk pace and, while it never gets bogged down by little things like character development or realism, it's never boring. Even the clunky dialogue is full of infectious energy.
Best songs: I'm sure I'm going to rile some fans with this one, but I don't care. Even if the only song in this movie was the title track, I'd say the same thing. Not only is "Viva Las Vegas" catchy as heck (it's in the movie three times, and I didn't mind), it marks a more grown-up sound for the King and, as the unofficial song of the city of Las Vegas, has pop-cultural significance. Besides the title song and his cover of Ray Charles's "What'd I Say?" (which backed up the title track's single), there aren't many recognizable Elvis hits. There are some fun songs, though, including the Margret/Presley duet, "The Lady Loves Me" -- a scene that ends with Elvis falling about 12 feet into a pool.
Best location: Given Elvis's affinity for the city's nightlife, its importance to his career from the late '60s to the end of his life, and its reputation for being all surface and no substance, I can't think of a better setting for an Elvis movie than Las Vegas. From the opening shot, flying over the city at night, Vegas makes a good case for being the ultimate movie set, and in this newly remastered transfer, the neon signs pop against the black sky. The surrounding area gets a good amount of screen time as well, especially Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, leading rock journalist Steve Pond -- in his commentary track -- to jokingly wonder whether the Vegas Chamber of Commerce helped write the dialogue.
As a DVD package, Viva Las Vegas: Deluxe Edition is one of the most impressive I've seen in a while, not least because it doesn't try to knock the audience silly with an avalanche of bonus features. The features it has, though, do a great job of placing the film in historical context, in a way that made me appreciate it even more.
"Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas" is a 20-minute featurette about Elvis's connection to Las Vegas -- from the flop of his first performance, through the making of Viva Las Vegas, to the "comeback" performances at the International Hotel that cemented his legacy as a stage performer. The mix of interviews, still photos, and performance footage does a great job as an overview of Elvis's career. Though it's about more than just Viva Las Vegas, it shows the importance of the film to Presley's career as a whole.
The feature-length commentary by Steve Pond, author of Elvis in Hollywood, is chock full of Elvis history, movie trivia, and cultural context. As much as I like hearing what people who worked on a movie have to say, I'm a sucker for commentary tracks by film experts. He goes into great detail about the events surrounding the making of the movie, what Vegas meant to Elvis, and the musical changes going on at the time (including the Beatles conquering America). He's honest in his assessment of this flawed gem, but has excitement enough to prove he's a real fan. For as much as he has to say, though, I was surprised by the few times he stops talking completely, sometimes for several minutes. (I remember twice nearly checking to make sure I hadn't changed the audio track by mistake.)
The real star of the features, though, is the movie itself. The remastered picture looks amazing: the colors are bright, the details are sharp across the wide 2.35:1 frame, and I saw no visible scratches or dust. The only dip in quality I noticed was in a transition between two scenes midway through the film -- it lasts about a second and then it snaps back to normal. It happens so fast, and the rest of the movie looks so good, I didn't care.
The last of the special features is the original theatrical trailer. It's not that interesting, except that seeing how bad the footage once looked makes the remastered film seem all the better by comparison.
All the reasons to dislike this movie are the same reasons to dislike any of Elvis's movies: as a romantic comedy, there's not much in the way of believable emotion; Lucky and Rusty flip-flop faster than the latest dance move; and though there's a story in here somewhere, it exists solely to propel the characters from one song to the next. At one point Lucky seems to have forgotten all about his quest for a new motor, and don't even ask how either Lucky or Rusty had time to choreograph and practice their acts for the contrived talent competition. To complain about lack of narrative, though, is to miss the point -- like the town in which it's set, this movie has one purpose: to entertain.
There are fans who will likely be disappointed by the lack of any deleted scenes or any of the Ann-Margret songs that were taken out as part of the Colonel's efforts to keep Elvis front and center. It's entirely possible no footage exists, but it would have been nice to at least hear them in audio form.
I don't know if this really counts as a criticism, but, for some reason, the collectible booklet included with my copy of the DVD had photos from one of the other "deluxe edition" releases: Elvis: That's The Way It Is. I assume it was just a packaging mistake. It's not a big deal. What I got was fun to look through. I just wish I could have seen the production photos for the movie I actually watched.
Viva Las Vegas is not a perfect movie, but it's a lot of fun if you know what to expect. Elvis and Ann-Margret are amazing together, and the backdrop of Las Vegas gives the movie real spectacle. As the high point of Elvis's movie career, Viva Las Vegas marks the last film before the tumble in quality of his "travelogue" movies, all of which adhered to Colonel Parker's preferred moviemaking formula: make 'em quick, make 'em cheap, and make 'em profitable.
For Elvis fans, buying this DVD should be automatic. The film never looked or sounded this good. Add in some truly informative features that support the film and you've got the model of what a DVD release should be.
Viva Not Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Steve Pond, Author of Elvis in Hollywood
* "Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas" Featurette
* Theatrical Trailer