Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Cinema Killed the Radio Star: How Elvis Presley's Movies Nearly Ended His Career

I don't think there can be much argument that Elvis Presley was the biggest music star to emerge in the Fifties. Elvis wasn't exactly an overnight sensation. He had spent two years on the legendary Sun Record label making records that had only a little initial impact before switching to RCA. It was his first record at RCA that would be his breakout hit. "Heartbreak Hotel" spent eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard singles chart and sold over a million copies. For the next several years Elvis would have a string of hits that was unmatched in the United States. Even a stint in the Army could not dethrone a man who would be dubbed "the King of Rock 'n' Roll."

While the Army caused no lasting harm to his career, it is a common belief that Elvis Presley was at the top of the rock 'n' roll game until the Fab Four arrived from England, after which Presley's career languished. Actually, this is not entirely true. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released December 26, 1963. The Beatles made their legendary, first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. And yet Elvis still had four top twenty hits and one song that went to #1 ("Blue Christmas") on the Billboard chart in 1964. While Elvis's career wasn't what it used to be (in 1957 every single he released went to #1), it was hardly languishing. I think that while it is safe to say that The Beatles probably had some impact on Elvis's popularity, it was not what nearly brought his career to a halt.

The question, then, is that if The Beatles and the other British Invasion bands did not nearly crush Elvis's career in the Sixties, what did? I think the answer most likely lies in a place far from Liverpool, a placed called "Hollywood." Quite simply, Elvis's very own movies had more of a negative effect on his career than The Beatles ever did. It was quite natural that with Elvis's unprecedented success in the mid-Fifties that the film industry would seek him out. It was in 1956 that producer Hal Wallis, a Hollywood veteran who had produced movies from Casablanca to My Friend Irma, saw one of Elvis's performances on Stage Show (the first TV show on which he ever appeared). Wallis was convinced the young singer could become a movie star and contacted his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. After a screen test, Wallis signed Elvis to a three movie deal. His first film, Love Me Tender, was a Western about the Reno brothers in which Elvis occasionally sings. Released on November 15, 1956, Love Me Tender did very well at the box office, despite mixed reviews.

Although the image in the minds of most people of Elvis Presley movies is that of films set in exotic locales with situations contrived just so Elvis can sing (usually to animals or small children), this was not the case with his earliest movies. Although, with the exception of King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, none of Elvis's films probably qualify as classics, his earliest films were of a more serious nature than his later ones. Following the lead of Love Me Tender, his films Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, King Creole, Flaming Star, and Wild in the Country were all dramas with musical interludes. The story lines in Elvis's early movies could be quite good and his roles in those films actually gave him a bit more to do than sing. And often the films featured some great musical sequences. Indeed, the sequence for the song "Jailhouse Rock" in the movie of the same name is arguably one of the greatest of all time.

With Elvis's success in films, it was quite natural that not long after his return from the Army in 1960 he and Colonel Parker decided to concentrate on the singer's film career. In some respects it must have seemed like a win/win situation. After all, the movies could earn money at the box office while the singles and soundtrack albums associated with the films could burn up the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, this is not the way it turned out. The turning point was a movie released in 1961, Blue Hawaii. Blue Hawaii would be Elvis's highest grossing movie of all time. It also set a precedent for the majority of Elvis Presley movies to come. Indeed, it was the first of what Elvis would call his "travelogues." Quite simply, it was a musical comedy set in an exotic location (Hawaii) with a plot that was more or less an excuse for Elvis to sing at different points in the film. As to the music, the soundtrack of Blue Hawaii featured no outright, rock 'n' roll numbers, although it would provide Elvis with two memorable songs ("Can't Help Falling in Love with You" and "Blue Hawaii"). Sadly, most of Elvis's films for the next several years would follow the lead of Blue Hawaii. Most of them would have contrived plots in exotic locales with an absolute minimum of rock 'n' roll numbers. While there would be exceptions (such as the Western Charro, in which Elvis doesn't sing), the majority of the films Elvis made in the Sixties used Blue Hawaii as a template.

Even relying upon the Blue Hawaii formula, Elvis's career might not have suffered as badly as it did were it not for a decline in quality of the films and, worse yet, the songs in those films. It was arguably the movies whose quality slipped first, with such weak entries as Girls! Girls! Girls! and Fun in Acapulco. Even then the songs could be quite good. "Return to Sender" came from the soundtrack for Girls! Girls! Girls!, while "Bossa Nova Baby" came from Fun in Acapulco. Unfortunately, the songs would begin to decline in quality as well. Signs of this could be seen as early as Blue Hawaii, which featured one of his worst numbers "Ito Eats." Sadly, "Ito Eats" would be more a sign of things to come than either "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" or "Blue Hawaii." In fact, as the Sixties continued, songs such as "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car (from Fun in Acapulco)," "Do the Clam" (from Girl Happy)" and "Signs of the Zodiac (from The Trouble with Girls)" would become increasingly more common in Elvis's films. In fact, by the time of Elvis's final two movies (The Trouble with Girls and Change of Habit), one would be hard pressed to find a good song in an Elvis movie.

The decline in the quality of Elvis's songs was reflected in their performance on the Billboard charts. In fact, a decline in Elvis's performance on the singles charts can be seen before The Beatles came to America. From 1956 to 1962, Elvis would have at least one #1 single a year, sometimes more than one. In 1963, however, Elvis did not hit the #1 spot on the Billboard singles chart at all. His songs still did respectably well that year ({"You're The} Devil in Disguise" went to #3 on the chart, while "Bossa Nova Baby" went to #8), but it was perhaps a sign of erosion in Elvis's career. In 1964 Elvis would have only one #1 hit, "Blue Christmas." From 1964 to 1969, Elvis would not even have one single to go to #1 on the Billboard chart. Worse yet, as the Sixties wore on Elvis's singles would be hard pressed to even make the top ten, let alone hit the #1 spot on the Billboard singles chart. The lowest point in Elvis's musical career could well have been the years 1967 to 1968. Of the four singles Elvis released that year, only two hit the Top Forty, and, for an artist who once had multiple #1 hits in a year, I don't think it can be said that either those two songs did particularly well. "Indescribably Blue" only went to #33. "Big Boss Man" did even worse, barely cracking the Top Forty at #38. Nineteen sixty eight would be even worse. Out of six singles released, only one would break the Top Forty--"U.S. Male" at #28. If at any point in Elvis's career could he have been called a "has been," it would have been the years 1967 to 1968.

It seems to me that the decline in Elvis's musical career in the Sixties was directly linked to the quality of the songs in his movies and even the quality of the movies themselves. With "Blue Hawaii" a formula was hit upon in which Elvis could simply be placed in a situation in an exotic locale, no matter how contrived, and still sell movie tickets. With the movies growing poorer and poorer in quality, it would only be a matter of time before a lackadaisical approach would be taken in the choice of songs for Elvis's movies as well. Quite simply, the quality of any given song did not matter as much as the fact that Elvis was singing it and it fit the particular movie it was in. This was probably made even worse by the fact hat Colonel Parker and Elvis had decided to concentrate on making movies instead of recording. By the mid-Sixties the only songs Elvis was recording were for his movies. This meant that Elvis was recording fewer songs than he ever had before. Fewer songs meant fewer chances to do well on the Billboard charts. When combined with the fact that the songs Elvis was recording for his movies were often sub par, the chances that Elvis could have a hit single were reduced considerably.

While it is simply not possible that Elvis Presley could ever have been forgotten, I rather suspect that if his career had continued upon the course on which it had been set in the Sixties, he would have eventually been viewed as a washed up, formerly great, rock 'n' roll singer. Fortunately, an event in 1968 would change all of that. It was in October 1967 that Colonel Parker entered negotiations with NBC for a Christmas special featuring Elvis to air during the 1968-1969 season. Colonel Tom Parker thought it should be a typical Christmas special of the sort so popular in the Sixties in which Elvis would simply sing various holiday tunes, similar to those made by such big names as Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. On the other hand, executive producer Bob Finkel and director Steve Binder thought the special was a chance to return Elvis to something of his former glory. Quite simply, they wanted to use the special as an opportunity to display Elvis's talents performing some of the greatest hits of his career. The special, eventually titled Elvis (but afterwards referred to as "Elvis's '68 Comeback Special" by most people), aired December 3, 1968 on NBC. Not only was the special widely lauded by critics, but it was one of the highest rated programmes for the 1968-1969 season.

I think it is safe to say that the TV special Elvis revitalised Elvis Presley's career. Nineteen sixty nine would see Elvis hit the charts with three top ten hits ("In the Ghetto" went to #3, "Suspicious Minds" went to #1, and "Don't Cry, Daddy" went to #6). Although not seeing the success he had in the Fifties, Elvis's name was regularly seen on Billboard charts in the Seventies. That same year saw Elvis return to making live performances, breaking records in Las Vegas. He would also take up touring once more, making a number of live appearances across the United States from 1969 to 1977. After 1969, the worst that could be said about Elvis is that perhaps he was a bit out of touch with the rock music of the time.

In the end the movies Elvis made in the Sixties would not bring an end to his career, although it seems likely that they could well have. As the quality of his films declined, so too did the quality of his songs. Worse yet, the only songs he recorded from the mid-Sixties onwards were for his movies. As a result Elvis nearly disappeared from Billboard charts. Sad as it might seem, the man who was once the King of Rock 'n' Roll could not even hit the Top Ten on the Billboard singles chart in the late Sixties, let alone score a #1 hit. If the TV special Elvis had never been made (or if it had been a typical Christmas special, as Colonel Parker had planned), then it seems possible that the career of the former King of Rock 'n' Roll could have languished until the end of his life. Fortunately, that was not the case.

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