He may have been the King, but with Elvis Presley, there’s always a marketing angle, too. The latest is the 30th anniversary of his death, for which a slew of his many horrible movies (Tickle Me, anyone?) are being rereleased or issued for the first time on DVD. The two most notable entries are documentaries, 1970’s Elvis: That’s the Way It Is — primo concert and rehearsal footage of E in Vegas — and 1983’s expanded This Is Elvis, an eccentric but transfixing biography. It mixes actor-re-created scenes from Presley history (his first recording session at Sun Records, for example) with frequently amazing documentary footage (the sight of him, in the black-and-white-TV era, tossing off a version of ”Stuck on You” with a pompadour that rocks as much as the song itself: priceless).
It’s a little jarring to hear actor Ral Donner do a voice-over narration impersonating Elvis; we’re meant to think it’s Presley telling his own life story. This Is Elvis captures many sides of the real man, from his volcanic early stage performances to his late-period obsession with martial arts (watch as Elvis pushes over a black belt as the fellow keeps one hand pressed against the King’s throat). Its ambition is so great that the production’s occasional melodramatic touches can not only be forgiven, but viewed as having been executed in the spirit of the man himself.
Among the theatricals, I’m partial to 1957’s Jailhouse Rock, with Elvis as an ex-con who becomes a pop star; it’s typically flimsy filmmaking but features a lot of dynamic musical numbers. More idiosyncratic is King Creole, released almost a year later and directed by consummate pro Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). It’s Elvis’ version of Rebel Without a Cause, and one of the few Presley movies that suggests an acting range that could have expanded but never found the proper creative space to do so. Creole contains enjoyable performances by Walter Matthau and a pre-Addams Family Carolyn Jones; too bad that, except for the wiggly title tune, it also features pretty lousy songs (”Dixieland Rock”?). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is: A- This Is Elvis: A- Jailhouse Rock: B+ King Creole: B