"If I should live to be ninety I will never forget, the little shrimp and the song he sang as he jumped into the net"—Song of the Shrimp
It's a shame that whenever someone mentions the name "Elvis Presley" nowadays, the same old tired clichés and ridiculous jokes come to mind: the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, the tacky sequined jumpsuits, the legion of pathetic half-hearted impersonators and that glorious monument to the tacky and plebian—Graceland. For someone so important to the history, creation and acceptance of rock and roll to be whittled down to a white trash redneck stereotype, the bumpkin as a rube with a squalid taste in fashion and friends is grossly unfair. But it is partly his own fault, or better yet, the fault of the people who worked for and around him. Unlike the Beatles, who carefully guarded their image and product to the point of virtually obscurity (but continuing popularity and respectability), Elvis' handlers took any and all opportunities to cheapen his image and potential legacy for the sake of a dollar and a percentage. How else does one explain the 100+ albums released or, most disconcerting, the 30+ films he made. With the creation and marketing of each new piece of Presley product, a little more of his polished veneer was slowly chipped away. Girls, Girls, Girls is an example of the lightweight fare his handlers hoisted him into. Now available on DVD, it allows modern audiences to see the King as commodity, his boundless talents reduced to singing songs about seafood.
Facts of the Case
Ross Carpenter runs a charter fishing business off the coast of Hawaii for his adoptive parents. When illness requires the elderly couple to sell all the boats and move to Arizona, Ross is decidedly upset. He wants a chance to buy back the sailboat where he lives, since long ago he and his now deceased father had built it from scratch. But before he can gather together the funds, two opposing forces walk into his life and disrupt it. Johnson is a tacky tuna boat owner who buys the sloop out from under Ross, but then offers him a chance to "buy it back" by indenturing him to captain his fishing fleet. And while performing at a nightclub with his on again, mostly off again girlfriend, the turgid torch singer Robin, Ross meets Laurel, a feisty young woman who seems to be running from something. He's intrigued by her, and soon they grow very found of one other. Just when it seems like things are going his way, Johnson sells Ross' boat to an anonymous buyer. Dejected, Ross escapes to Paradise Cove to stay with his second "family" of Asian friends and associates. Little does Ross know that someone close to him bought the boat to give him what he wanted and to make him happy.
Note to the newcomer: Elvis Presley movies have a great deal in common with that ever-popular disposable youth culture invention: bubblegum pop. Once you've seen (heard) one, you've about seen (heard) them all. This wasn't always the case. Initially, great care was used to manufacture the perfect showcase for the King's limited skills in front of the camera. His natural charisma was exploited, while his naïve southern boy persona was magnified. With success came laziness, and his cinematic efforts began to find a particular formulaic rhythm. Similar plot structures were devised. The King was always a down on his luck loner from humble beginnings (Elvis is a penniless carnie with a chip on his shoulder) whose adventures lead him to a usually outlandish or action packed conclusion (Elvis devises a system of weights and pulleys to successful drag the freighter/opera house up the side of the Amazonian mountain). There was always a love interest, or two. And oddly, for a man who was known to record some of the most fiery roots music this side of the Mississippi, the King was usually not featured belting out some rambunctious R&B or scorching rockabilly. Instead, he was saddled with ballads about clamdiggers and rave-ups about the Rotary Club. Obviously, the main attraction to an Elvis Presley film was a chance to glimpse His Majesty 40 feet high, a larger than life creation of media and myth that smoldered with an unspoken darkness and burned with an undeniable sexual power.
Girls, Girls, Girls appears at the top downward edge of Presley's motion picture filmography, near the pre-Beatles peak of his popularity and professional arc. On all fronts, it is a fairly innocuous, light bit of non-offensive entertainment (unless we are discussing racial issues; more on that later) that only hopes to make you toe-tappingly happy for 90 minutes. The unassuming tale of a fisherman who just wants the boat he built with his Daddy is straightforward, and if viewed without a great deal of expectations or pre-conceived bias, it entertains thoroughly. But it is in no means a great piece of cinematic art, nor is it a very good film. Elvis outings hardly ever are. There is a true sense of showmanship (and the accompanying component—the big con) when it comes to a Presley presentation. Never once do you buy him as a beat down working class stiff who just needs a break to get what he more or less rightfully deserves. And there is never a great deal of obstacle in his way, as if all this poor seaman needed was a good business manager and his prayers and sailing woes would be addressed. So, technically, these are not movies so much as they are extended video reinterpretations of the Presley image (kind of like numerous career oriented costumes for your Barbie doll). There is a real effort to bring the ruler of rock down off his throne, to make him more human and approachable to his fan base by saddling him with issues that everyday shmoes can relate to.
Problem is, Girls, Girls, Girls loses sight of this conceit a few times. Elvis is, without a doubt, one of the great voices and interpreters of music in its history. And the movie forgets this, constantly undermining his Joe Regular persona with heavenly singing skill. Whenever he opens his mouth onscreen, the entire enterprise vibrates with electricity. Even when he is singing that horrible half-hearted show tune tripe that his films are full of, his presence and precision are undeniable. There are a few good rockers here (the classic "Return to Sender," the locomotive "I Don't Wanna Be Tied") Unintentionally, though, the lesser musical numbers in Girls, Girls, Girls play as Top Secret!-style satiric comedy, since many revolve around such seafaring themes as fish, lobster, and (a personal favorite) "The Song of the Shrimp." Who else but the enigmatic boy from Tupelo could sell a sea chantey about a lonely little krill giving up his life for the benefit of a little Creole gumbo? It's always amazing that when tribute/compilation albums are made to celebrate Mr. TCB, more adventurous artists (like The Residents, who had their own Presley oeuvre interpretation with "The King and Eye") don't seek out lunacy like this to sink their King credits into. But music only makes up a third of these films. And it's the other two thirds where some problems come to a discouraging head.
One bothersome flaw with the movie though, is one that could not have been intended and seems to work at cross-purposes. The filmmakers obviously wanted to humanize the Asian characters, turning them in well-rounded, developed characters instead of negative stereotypes. But any good ground that is gained in the scripting or performances is trashed once the ersatz Chinese goofy gong music kicks in and Elvis attempts to warble in Mandarin or Cantonese. Like Flower Drum Song or a radical rethinking of Disney's long unreleased Uncle Remus faux racist kiddie flick (just call this movie Sarong of the South) the "ah so—me flappy dicky long time" mentality starts to eke out and the whole, fun tone of the film starts to falter. It's not that all the Asian characters smile like chipmunks, scream "no ticky no washy" or squint up their eyes and mispronounce "L"s and "R"s like a Benny Hill sketch. In a similar vein to those aforementioned Tin Pan Alley errors, a decidedly Caucasian, western stench rises up from the treatment of Eastern culture and individuals, cheapening everything that, otherwise, the makers have tried to avoid. You can see a small amount of grace and dignity peeking through the Peking muck. But more times than not, a decidedly Charlie Chan vibe permeates Paradise Cove.
Another distraction is the location and technological limitations of the early '60s. In these ultra modern days of computer technology and digital disguises, the use of in-studio "outdoor" sets and blue screen intercutting is quite jarring. One long sequence where Elvis and the evil Johnson fight onboard the sailboat switches from actual ocean footage to faked boat brawling so often that the viewer needs a Dramamine. And when our two lovers spend a romantic evening in the moonlight, only to have the sunset chroma-keyed in around them, you wonder what the resistance was to having the stars in nature itself looking at the beautiful surroundings. Hawaii here seems sumptuous, but not enough use is made of it. There are very few scenes that showcase the natural beauty, and even the quaint town and fishing village the characters live and work in looks more soundstage than real world. Fortunately, on the acting front, there are no such "phony" troubles. Stella Stevens is fine, but what she is doing in this movie is anyone's educated guess. She has very few scenes, most of which take place in the tacky island nightclub she works in. Her character seems ancillary, only involved to be bitter and bitchy to our hero (and you can bet dollars to daiquiris that's not her singing voice). Laurel Heath is adequate, if a little cold as the rich girl. What Elvis sees in her is a matter for his heart alone (and the script only) to explain. And the King does a halfway decent job here, looking comfortable and ruggedly outdoorsy, even if you can catch him looking for offstage cue cards and occasionally delivering his lines after a tell-tale jump cut.
Faults aside, Girls, Girls, Girls is a fine 90 minutes of old fashioned star driven entertainment. The music, for the most part, is good and the scenery (when it can be seen) breathtaking. But leave it to the Lords of Desolate Digital Presentation, Paramount, to create a permanent record of the King's cinematic career so devoid of extras that to call it barebones would be to give it specs it, frankly, does not have. This DVD has no extras to speak of. Not a trailer. Not a filmography. Not even a list of songs featured. Nothing. On the other hand, Paramount did remaster the film and presents it in a mint, pristine 1.85:1 original aspect ratio transfer that is phenomenal. The water is as blue as cobalt and the greenery lush and fertile. Sonically, a Beatles / A Hard Days Night style 5.1 soundtrack has been created which does the movie, and the music in particular, somewhat of a disservice. As stated in the review of recent re-release of the Fab Four classic, separation in the mix goes against how music is created and mastered. You are not supposed to hear the Jordanaires apart from the accompaniment and the 5.1 doesn't add a lot to the aural presentation of the non-musical scenes, so why it's needed is a good question. But a least Paramount offers a restored and substantially cleaned up mono track as an alternative that preserves the film's original soundtrack integrity. And it does sound wonderful. It will be a complete matter of personal preference which you choose.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's time to call a thief a thief, and that is what Elvis Presley is/was…a good-looking, heavily promoted thief. While he got rich and ran off to Hollywood to capitalize on his fame, the original talents behind the music he was ripping off, the Little Richards and Chuck Berrys of the world were still trying to find a bathroom they could use, a diner they could eat at, and a seat anywhere but at the back of the bus. It's hard not to sympathize with the sentiment stated by Public Enemy's Chuck D in the rap group's seminal hit "Fight the Power." Elvis may indeed be a hero and the King of Rock and Roll to most, but he should never really be considered anything other than Pat Boone with better fashion sense. Like that infamous white buck passer, all our Mississippi truck driver did was sing like a black man and make a mint off the minstrel imitation. It's only fitting that, as years have gone by, he has turned into the running joke to many and his influence on modern music toned down from King to Duke. There is no denying his cultural impact, and the fact that he could make a weak waste of celluloid like Girls, Girls, Girls and the public would still support him proves it. But isn't it really a greater reflection of a racists society's reluctance to embrace diversity and equality than having anything at all to do with Elvis Presley's screen presence?
It's hard to imagine any rock star, current or just after Elvis, who could make movie after movie and still have Hollywood believe them bankable. So many have tried (Madonna, Sting), and with the exception of a certain Material Girl who just doesn't know when to give up, most all have seen their cinematic fortunes fall, ticket sales telling them to concentrate on singing. Elvis was a fluke, and a one of a kind talent and that is why a film like Girls, Girls, Girls works. It capitalizes on his good attributes (singing and sex appeal) and minimized those areas where he failed to excel (mainly in the acting department). This movie represents the last year of Elvis' reign over American popular, youth and musical culture. In just a few short months, four mop-topped boys from Liverpool, England would redefine the landscape the way the brash, ballsy kid from Mississippi had done a decade before. The King would have to reestablish his kingdom in the decidedly more adult sin city of Las Vegas. Time and the tabloids have not been nice to the Presley persona. But at least thanks to Paramount and Girls, Girls, Girls, we can witness his golden age in all its faux Hollywood, hip gyrating and horny hep cat bravado. There will never be another Elvis. Unlike his movies, he was one of a kind.
Girls, Girls, Girls is found not guilty by the Court, not only because of the evidence and the legend involved, but His Honor cannot fault a film that features a love song about a shrimp.
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