Jailhouse Rock was one of the earliest movie musicals to revolve around rock and roll and is one of the finest Elvis Presley films.
Take away the jail part and this film is basically a fictional biopic of Elvis Presley’s life. Maybe it’s because of the rebellious image but he not died in a car accident, one can imagine James Dean as the Vince character…if James Dean were Elvis and could sing.
Construction worker Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) ends up in prison after accidentally killing someone in a brawl. He ends in a cell with Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) and learns to play guitar. Vince performs during one of the nationwide telecasts featuring the inmates and starts getting fan mail. However, Hunk prevents said mail from reaching Vince. Vince later gets all the mail upon his release. He starts working as a bar boy at a nightclub where Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) hears him singing. Peggy offers him the chance to record a demo. Unfortunately, Geneva Records turns “Don’t Leave Me Now” into a song for Mickey Alba. Vince and Peggy decide to start up their own record label, Laurel Records, with Mr. Shores (Vaughn Taylor) looking after the company. Shores also narrates the film.
Vince skyrockets to stardom after “Treat Me Nice” becomes a hit. Hunk comes to him to remind him of the pact that they had agreed to. Vince manages to get Hunk on the NBC broadcast but his song gets cut. Hunk’s music style just isn’t what the people want anymore. As a result, Hunk joins the entourage.
After becoming an arrogant star and no longer talking to Peggy, Vince eventually makes his way to Hollywood. Customary for the era, the studio head has Sherry Wilson (Jennifer Holden) spending a day with Vince. This is one of those things where they are doing it just for the publicity but eventually, the two fall for each other. In absolutely no surprise, Peggy enters the picture again. The timing is quite the coincidence because Geneva offered to buy out their record company. Their disagreement over selling out ends up in Hunk hitting Vince and nearly destroying his career. That Vince is willing to forgive Hunk shows how loyal he is at a moment where his career is on the line.
The key sequence in the film is the performance of the title song on the NBC broadcast. When the song appears on screen, it looks like a long take that stays on Elvis throughout the entire song. He’s definitely having fun in what is hands-down one of his best moments in all of his films. What elevates the performance is the elaborate choreography, which Elvis had a role in creating. There’s an argument that the dance sequence is the prototype for music videos. Presley lip-syncs every number since the music got added during post-production.
This film just happened to become a game-changer for the genre. It isn’t a book musical where songs progress the plot forward. Instead, it is a film that evolves around a rock star. All of the songs have their own place in the film but it’s not your traditional musical. It’s certainly something else and maybe the cinema wasn’t ready for a film like this in 1957. Interestingly enough, Presley’s arrival was also resented in the industry upon his arrival in Hollywood. I mean, he was a musician, not your typical actor that climbed up the ladder in the studio system.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were some of the best songwriters during this era. They were reluctant to write music for Elvis, having been unhappy with his take on “Hound Dog.” The duo eventually came around and wrote a number of songs for Elvis to sing. They wrote four of them in four hours. Leiber and Stoller’s feelings changed as a result of this film. Stoller even appears in the film as Vince’s pianist.
Unfortunately, co-star Judy Tyler would die in a car accident on July 3, 1957, days after completing production. Because of this, Elvis did not attend the film’s premiere.
Jailhouse Rock features Elvis Presley at his finest.
DIRECTOR: Richard Thorpe
SCREENWRITER: Guy Trosper
CAST: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, with Mickey Shaughnessy, Vaughn Taylor, Jennifer Holden, Dean Jones, Anne Neyland
MGM released Jailhouse Rock in theaters on November 8, 1957. Grade: 4/5
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