Judge Patrick Bromley has left the building.
Our reviews of Jailhouse Rock (Blu-Ray) (published November 1st, 2007), Viva Las Vegas (Blu-Ray) (published November 1st, 2007), and Viva Las Vegas: Deluxe Edition (published September 17th, 2007) are also available.
Hail to the king.
Two of Elvis Presley's best and most-loved films are packaged together with the new-to-Blu documentary Elvis on Tour for the Elvis: Blu-ray Collection.
Facts of the Case
In Jailhouse Rock, Elvis plays Vince Everett, who goes to jail after accidentally killing a man during a bar fight he didn't star. In jail, he meets Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy, How the West Was Won), a would-be country singer who introduces Vince to the world of music by teaching him the guitar and showing him the ropes. When he gets out, Vince begins his own slow and steady climb to stardom as a recording artist, thanks to the help of a record company talent scout named Peggy (Judy Tyler, who died just a few weeks after finishing Jailhouse Rock). Eventually, Vince becomes a huge star and begins to alienate the friends he made during his rise to the top.
1964's Viva Las Vegas casts Elvis as Lucky Jackson, a race car driver who travels to Vegas to participate in the city's annual Grand Prix. While trying to raise the money to buy a new engine for his car, Lucky falls for a redheaded swimming instructor named Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret, Bye Bye Birdie). As the two begin their courtship and fall in love, Lucky does his best not to be distracted from the upcoming race. When it's Ann-Margret vying for your affections, that's easier said than done.
The third disc in the Elvis: Blu-ray Collection is the new-to-HD 1972 documentary Elvis on Tour, Presley's 33rd and final big-screen appearance. The film chronicles The King's 1972 tour, in which he traveled to 15 cities in 15 days, and intercuts live footage with backstage and archival material.
Quentin Tarantino once wrote that there are two kinds of people in this world: there are Beatles people, and there are Elvis people. Beatles people can like Elvis, he said, and Elvis people can like The Beatles, but sooner or later you have to make a choice. With this in mind, I'll come clean as a Beatles man (albeit one who likes Elvis). A true Elvis fan loves the entire exhaustive catalogue—even the really obscure deep cuts and the late-period stuff. I'm more of a "greatest hits" fan and, as such, cannot count myself among the true Elvis die-hards (though, using those same qualifications, I am a true Beatles fan, but that's another conversation altogether).
Before you say that this makes me unqualified to review a collection of Elvis movies, let me add this caveat: I love Elvis movies. In fact, I might say that I like Elvis movies better than Elvis music, despite the fact that I'm well aware that his contributions to the latter are considerably more lasting and significant. I enjoy Elvis movies the same non-ironic way I enjoy the Beach Party films: as lighthearted, innocent and sweet documents of their time. Presley's filmography exists in an interesting place between wanting to be taken seriously as an actor and simply wanting to act in movies because he was famous enough to do it, and I'm fascinated by that tension. Yes, it makes for some pretty terrible movies (though always entertainingly so), but it produced a few keepers as well. Two of those are represented on the new Elvis: Blu-ray Collection box set.
The first, 1957's Jailhouse Rock, remains one of Elvis's best-loved movies not just for the show-stopping title number (still one of my favorite musical moments in the history of movies) but because he's unassailably cool throughout. He's also kind of a dick—a fact that had escaped me until this most recent viewing. Though he starts off likable enough (if you're willing to overlook a little thing like manslaughter), it actually isn't long before Vince has gotten too big for his blue suede shoes (that's right, I said it) and remains an arrogant, condescending douche almost all the way through the last scene. But, then, that's part of the charm of Jailhouse Rock; Elvis is cool, not necessarily likable. Take it or leave it. The black and white, widescreen compositions are striking and gorgeous, the music is better than a number of Elvis movies and the supporting cast is excellent—in particular, Mickey Shaughnessy as Vince's mentor, Hunk Houghton. Credit should also go to director Richard Thorpe, for putting together one of the few Elvis movies that feel like a real movie—not just a disposable vanity project or shameless attempt to cash in on his rock-star fame. Elvis made over 30 movies in just a 13-year period, but Jailhouse Rock stands above nearly all of them. It's one of The King's best, and it's a whole lot of fun.
Viva Las Vegas is even more fun for a handful of reasons. For one, it's got a better story to hook on to—that is to say it has a story at all (I love Jailhouse Rock, but the narrative is not one of its strong suits). It's got a cool racing sequence at the end around the Vegas strip. Ann-Margret isn't so much a performer in the movie as she is a force of nature, and her incredibly stylized physicality has become almost as iconic as Marilyn Monroe standing over the sewer grate. She really gives Elvis a run for his money, and he seems more engaged here than in just about any other movie (the fact that the two were allegedly carrying on offscreen doesn't hurt matters, I'm sure). The songs range from terrific ("C'mon Everybody," "The Lady Loves Me," "What I'd Say," "You're the Boss" and, of course, the title track) to amusingly bad ("The Yellow Rose of Texas," The Ann-Margret sandwich-making opus "My Rival"). More than anything, though, the movie is just a whole lot of fun; Elvis's filmography isn't made up of too many serious-minded dramas, but this one's even more entertaining than most. A lot of his movies are so silly and lightweight that they're utterly disposable; Viva Las Vegas, on the other hand, has lasting power. Sure, it's a time capsule and sure it's made for a very specific audience, but like any movie you've got to be willing to take it on its terms. Taken on its own terms, Viva Las Vegas is a rockin', candy-colored blast.
But Elvis on Tour is where I must part ways, and where I'm sure I will frustrate devoted fans of the Sideburn'd One. Elvis on Tour is more about the pleasures of Elvis's music catalogue and live show, and I'm less interested in both of those than I am his filmography. Yes, many of the songs are great (that's like saying pizza is delicious; it's more a statement of fact than subjective opinion), but the performance was also captured late in his career. That means that Elvis on Tour focuses on the overweight, sweaty Elvis. The man simply seems tired; whether that's a function of the 15-day touring schedule or a result of his lifestyle choices, I can't say. It almost doesn't matter, as the end product is the same. I'm glad that this document of Elvis's late-period stage show exists, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me a little sad to see him in this state after the youthful exuberance on display in Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas. He's a completely different man in Elvis on Tour, and it's difficult to reconcile that with the cool cat seen in two of his best movies.
Beyond The King's physical condition, there's not much that's dynamic about Elvis on Tour. It utilizes a lot of the same split-screen effects made popular in Woodstock, but to lesser effect. With Woodstock, you got the feeling that there was so much happening at once that just one screen wouldn't do the experience justice. In Elvis on Tour, it's more about making the frame seem busy when it isn't—the technique is trying to manufacture energy that the live show doesn't have. I found myself perking up most when the film would cut to clip montages of Elvis's movies (packages supervised in part by Martin Scorsese), but, again, that says more about my own interests than the quality of Elvis on Tour. The documentary isn't a bad film. It just wasn't made for me.
Elvis fans who have already bought Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas on Blu-ray, prepare to be disappointed as this set simply repackages those two releases with the new Elvis on Tour documentary (which is available separately in the "Digibook" format, complete with a 40-page book that you won't get here). The video and audio quality for all three films is solid, though; each is presented in a 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio with a VC-1 encoded, 1080p HD transfer. Jailhouse Rock looks very good, with excellent black and white contrast and a sheen of grain that should please faithful film enthusiasts. Detail isn't as strong as on many other HD offerings, but for its age, the movie looks fantastic.
The same goes for Viva Las Vegas, with its eye-popping Metrocolor palette and splashy widescreen compositions. Warner Bros. has cleaned the movie up so it looks almost brand new—there are no visible defects or signs of age—without resorting to digital scrubbing that makes everything look plastic (Elvis' waxy appearance in the film is his own doing and not the fault of the HD transfer). The most problematic of the three films is Elvis on Tour, mostly because it comes from a number of elements of varying quality, not all of which have been preserved as well as Jailhouse Rock or Viva Las Vegas. The movie looks rough, somewhat by design—it looks the way we're meant to feel as we watch The King scramble through his exhausting 15-day tour. It's grainy and very soft at times, and the aspect ratio tends to change from shot to shot depending on the source. Still, the transfer is film-like and shouldn't disappoint fans of Elvis on Tour, who are more than likely happy to have the movie on Blu-ray at all.
All three films come equipped lossless TrueHD 5.1 audio mixes, which are energetic and brassy and a lot of fun (particularly Elvis on Tour, which is basically wall-to-wall music). In a nice touch, though, Warner Bros. has also seen fit to include an original mono option for purists on both Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, which funnels all of the sound into the front center speaker. For mono tracks, they're still pretty lively, and I like that Warner Bros. has given the viewer the option of how they want to watch the film given on what they may be in the mood for.
Both Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas come with dry but informative commentary tracks from Elvis historian Steve Pond and the original trailers for their respective films. Jailhouse Rock contains a featurette, "The Scene That Stole Jailhouse Rock, which focuses on the titular musical centerpiece of the movie. Viva Las Vegas contains only one featurette as well: "Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas," which touches upon the movie and the singer's relationship with Ann Magaret, but which is primarily about The King's relationship to Las Vegas throughout his career. Both featurettes are presented in HD.
Elvis on Tour contains no special features.
As someone who likes Elvis movies more than Elvis music, I'd have preferred that the Elvis: Blu-ray Collection contained King Creole instead of Elvis on Tour. Together with Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, that would essentially be the only Elvis collection you'd ever need. As it stands, though, Warner Bros. has put together a good (if somewhat redundant) package that's sure to please fans of The King.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Jailhouse Rock
Perp Profile, Jailhouse Rock
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Jailhouse Rock
Scales of Justice, Viva Las Vegas
Perp Profile, Viva Las Vegas
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Viva Las Vegas
Scales of Justice, Elvis On Tour
Perp Profile, Elvis On Tour
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Elvis On Tour
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