Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Review)

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There has been much anticipation over the last year or so about the three and a half hour documentary about Elvis Presley, entitled The Searcher, which finally got aired last weekend.  Many have believed that this would be the definitive documentary on Elvis and his music, both with regards to what he recorded and what he was influenced by.

In reality, the documentary proved itself to be worthy of its subject in many ways.  It was well put together and edited, it didn’t stray much from its mission to be mostly about the music rather than the man, and there was enough confidence by the filmmakers to delve deep into the Elvis legacy for the soundtrack, skipping over many hits and, instead, presenting songs that many viewers would not have heard before.   The way the documentary used the 1968 TV show as a pivot for the various chapters of the story worked well enough, but it seemed to borrow the idea from the HBO Sinatra documentary a year or two back which used his 1971 retirement concert in much the same way, and with better effect.

However, there was little here that hadn’t been said before.  The story is well-known, and here it certainly got a sophisticated telling, but it’s hard to find anything here that shone new light or new perspective on the established narrative.  There is plenty of material that could have questioned some of that narrative, but instead there was no effort to do so.  For example, Steve Allen was said to have booked Elvis purely for ratings, despite the fact that he booked Elvis before his TV performances caused ratings to soar.  Allen was said to have hated rock n roll music, and yet nothing was mentioned about the other rock ‘n’ roll acts on his show, the fact he defended Elvis in print, and that he gave Elvis’s first album a good review in a magazine column.  This material might not have been widely known in the past, but it certainly is out there now, and this would have been a good opportunity to at least show just a hint of the other side of the equation.  The same is true of the Colonel, who also comes across as a one-dimensional bad guy.

As is so often the case with these things, facts are intentionally or unintentionally distorted.  D. J. Fontana tells us that the “bump ‘n’ grind” ending to Hound Dog  on The Milton Berle Show had not been done before, and nobody knew what was happening, and yet we have aural evidence from a Little Rock concert a month earlier which shows us that it was a regular part of the performance.  Clearly, some mis-remembering on Fontana’s part, but an important detail nonetheless.  Meanwhile, the discussion of Elvis’s Las Vegas return in 1969 was accompanied by footage of Elvis a year later, with no indication in the voice-over or on screen that this was the case.

Some things were almost conspicuous by their absence – there was no mention of Elvis winning three Grammys – despite this being a documentary almost entirely about his music career.  Likewise, there was no mention of the two concert films by name – although footage from them was shown – meaning there was no talk of Elvis on Tour winning the Golden Globe.   The Memphis sessions of 1969 were dealt with in surprisingly little screen time, and Elvis Country, possibly Elvis’s greatest album wasn’t even mentioned at all, despite its return to Elvis’s musical roots and the use of footage of a press conference where Elvis discusses the importance of country music to him.

While the storytelling was sophisticated, the story it told often lacked nuance, and was remarkably safe. The 1968 TV special was a one-stroke return to form.  Not true – and the comment that it received universally great reviews is also not true.  There was no mention of the non-formula movies at the end of the 1960s, which might not have artistic or commercial successes as such, but they certainly demonstrated that Elvis and his work was changing.  There was much discussion about the publishing situation but, again, nothing about some of the fine music that came through that avenue from the likes of Pomus and Shuman or Don Robertson.   There was no mention of how Elvis approached his studio work in the 1970s, and how the mega-sessions might have helped or hindered that process.  And, oddly, nothing at all about the final videotaped performances from Elvis’s last tour.  They might not be an easy watch, but a choice excerpt from Hurt, or I Really Don’t Want to Know or Unchained Melody would have been apt in demonstrating that there were still flashes of brilliance even at the end.

Despite these failings, or (to be kinder) artistic choices, The Searcher achieved something which very little Elvis-related TV does – bringing it back to the music, and that is always a good thing.  However, the endorsement by the Estate does make it feel just that bit too safe.  We never really learn what made Elvis tick.  We learn about his musical influences, and the loss of his mother, but very little else.  Despite much talk about the evil Parker, we don’t ever get to grips as to how their relationship worked, or why Elvis didn’t just sack him when he was unhappy with his choices – a question which many viewers were probably left asking themselves.  In many respects, I’m reminded of Vincent Canby’s review of Elvis on Tour:  “Close-ups do not reveal anything but, rather, they enshrine an ideal, like an official photograph of a president or a pope.”  The Searcher seems to have a similar problem.

If you enjoyed The Searcher and would like to know more about Elvis’s music and how it was received during his lifetime, check out Reconsider Baby: A Listener’s Guide.  http://a.co/eenPMzO

 

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Love, Simon (2018)

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Well, we finally made it.  2018 is the year when a major Hollywood studio thought it could finally make a mainstream high school movie with a gay lead character.  Considering gay characters have been part of teen TV dramas for around twenty years, I have no idea why it has taken this long to reach this point, but Love, Simon carries a great burden of responsibility with it.

And the film is a delight.  No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it intended to be.  But it lacks any sense of self-importance, and is a well-made, unassuming, charming, likeable teen high school movie.  Note that I don’t say “gay teen high school movie.”  And this is the key thing here, and why the film has created interest.  This isn’t a film aimed at a gay audience, it is aimed at a general teen audience.

As a forty-something gay man this is a big deal.  There have been plenty of high school movies made before with gay teenagers as the central character, but they were indie movies made by gay men for gay men.  There was never a suggestion that such a protagonist could or would be of interest to a general audience.  And yet, tonight (when the film opened in the UK) the cinema audience appeared to be made of teenagers just having a normal night out at the movies.  And, remarkably for a UK audience, they actually applauded and cheered.   The gay protagonist didn’t matter, and surely that’s the way things could be.  The movie is being viewed as a teen rom-com, not a gay teen rom-com.  I wonder how much of a difference that must make if you’re a gay teenager growing up today.  I could never have imagined twenty-odd years ago going to a cinema with a group of straight friends to see Beautiful Thing or Get Real.  

The fact that Love, Simon betrays none of its historic significance on screen is part of what makes it so likeable.  But credit also has to go to the writer, director and actors for making sure the near two-hour film (Ok, it could have been trimmed just a little) actually works.  Nick Robinson (who I know very little about) was a superb choice in the lead role, but the supporting cast was also filled with faces familiar to the teen audience thanks to roles in The Flash, 13 Reasons Why, and others (a rather canny way to reassure those potential audiences who might be unsure of the subject matter).  And, while the film has attracted attention, there is a vast difference between this and the self-trumpeting pomposity that accompanied Brokeback Mountain thirteen years ago.  It’s a shame that it has taken a dozen years to get from that (all gay guys live miserable lives or die premature deaths) to this (it can be difficult, but it will all work out), but now we’ve finally made it, hopefully this will lead to other movies of a similar ilk very soon.

Geography Club (2013)

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Cameron Deane Stewart and Justin Deeley star as Russell and Kevin, two teenagers at the rather oddly named Goodkind High School who are gay and closeted – as are virtually all of the LGBT teens at the school.  But one night Russell and Kevin are spotted kissing by Min (Ally Maki), who is part of the “Geography Club,” a group where LGBT teens can get together without the worry of arousing suspicion thanks to the name of the group.  Russell joins, but getting Kevin, a star football player, to join is altogether more difficult.

It is easy to dismiss Geography Club, a relatively family-friendly film (only minor swearing and no nudity or sex) about LGBT teenagers (and others who view themselves as outcasts) at a high school in America.  It is bland, even twee in places, and yet it is remarkably charming  for the most part, even if there is something of a sting in the tale’s conclusion.

The film is refreshing in a number of ways.  Firstly, it’s a gay-themed film without sex and nudity at every opportunity.  Anyone who watches gay-themed indie movies regularly might be surprised to even know they exist at all.

Secondly, this isn’t really aimed at gay adults, but gay teens – arguably younger teens at that – and that separates this from the crowd.  The artwork for the UK edition of the DVD compares it to Glee, and the comparison isn’t totally unwarranted, but it also does the film something of a disservice.  Glee, even at its best, was never really believable in any way.  This, of course, was intended for the most part.  People don’t break out into song at every opportunity in real life, and the often-surreal nature of the show didn’t really place it in the real world, despite it’s attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to cover virtually every topic important to teenagers – with the strange exception of drug abuse.  But my point is that the target audiences for Glee and Geography Club are the same, although they approach things is a very different way.

Thirdly (and this ties in with my first point), the film is well-acted, well-directed, and clearly has a higher budget than most indie gay-themed films from America.  This looks like a real movie rather than a student piece put together by eighteen-year-olds.

However, there are some issues.  Cameron Deane Stewart is superb as Russell – likeable and charismatic, and, ultimately, believable.  However, Justin Deeley was twenty-seven at the time the movie was made.  And he’s playing a sixteen year old.  No matter how fine an actor he might be (and he plays the part well), it’s obvious that the guy is not sixteen.  Quite why filmmakers insist on using men in their mid-to-late twenties to play teenagers is a mystery to me.  A few years older isn’t a problem, but ten year older is, and even more so when major films are now using kids/teens who are the actual ages of their characters (or thereabouts).  This is a relatively new phenomenon – Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven when he played high school student Peter Parker in Spiderman (2002).  Tom Holland was twenty when he played the role for the first time.  The difference is startling.   The same is true of the young cast of It (2017) who were, for the most part, roughly the same age as their characters.  It isn’t just a case of whether someone’s face looks sixteen or twenty-six – the believeability comes about by how they walk, how they talk, their build, etc.  This is not to criticise Deeley’s performance, which is fine, but it does rob the film of some realism.

That issue aside, Geography Club works rather well, and is worth revisiting, especially with the release this year of Love, Simon.  I haven’t seen that movie (it’s not out in the UK for another week), but it is a mainstream movie aimed a gay teen audience in the same way Geography Club is.  It will be interesting to see how the two movies compare, not just in plot and budget, but how they address their intended audiences.  Either way, Geography Club is well worth a watch, and is an important movie in its own right.  No, it’s not a gay teen movie made by a major studio, but it is still a gay-themed movie aimed at teens and, despite the plethora of gay-themed movies over the last fifteen years or so, that is still a rarity – which is rather surprising given the popularity, and almost classic status, of UK gay-themed movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, made in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  In 2013, Geography Club managed to fill a void in the market – or, at least, provided a stop-gap until Love, Simon came along.

The Maze Runner Trilogy

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“They’re late,” are the first words spoke in The Death Cure, the final film in The Maze Runner trilogy.  They are rather appropriate, considering the fact that the film is finally hitting cinemas in the UK this weekend, after production was held up for a year following an on-set accident that seriously injured star Dylan O’Brien.   Sadly, the delay not only injured  O’Brien, but also stopped the momentum that the series had gathered, with audiences not used to waiting for three years for a conclusion to a group of films when the first two had been issued only one year apart.   The gap in production is obvious in some ways – O’Brien and some other members of the cast don’t look just six months older (as the film requires) but several years older, but such minor issues are forgotten after a few minutes and you get used to the difference.  The final film has received very good reviews, and with good reason.   Despite this, it is not the best in the series.  To my mind, the first installment wins that prize for managing to combine a sense of mystery, intrigue and action/adventure, and all of that in a lean running time of under two hours.  The Death Cure is more in line with the second movie, The Scorch Trials, concentrating on action sequences and, despite being nearly two and a half hours in length, no-one could complain that they were bored while the series reaches its explosive climax.

The Maze Runner, despite its production problems, might not be the most recognisable name in the cycle of films based on young adult dystopian novels, but it is arguably the best.  The Hunger Games has received more attention, but that series also seemed to have an air of self-importance that The Maze Runner does not.   The Maze Runner is there to entertain first and foremost, whereas The Hunger Games, for example, is almost a call to arms.  And I’m certainly not complaining about a series of movies or books that are trying to tell youngsters that people in power are not to be trusted and will screw you over in order to better themselves.  The earlier kids recognise that, the better.  But Hunger Games also seems sanctimonious about it, not helped by the lead character.  The same message is perhaps hidden away somewhere in The Maze Runner but it’s not what drives the narrative, and Thomas’s motives are not to bring down the establishment, but to save his own friends.   That he may or may not bring down the establishment whilst doing that is a simply a bonus for him, and this is clear throughout the final film.  Whereas the second ends with the decision to bring down WCKD, the third is still centred around rescuing his mate rather than getting too wrapped up in the bigger picture.  Thomas is a flawed character, and his decisions aren’t always the best ones, but that makes him more believable that Katniss in Hunger Games. 

The final film is a fitting finale, even if there are some moments towards the end where the action sequences just seem to go on for too long, no matter how big and loud and impressive they may be.  This series has always been more than being about big bangs.  But, again, there is no intention to be grandiose here – no desire to drag this adaptation of a single book over two full-length films.  That decision brought Hunger Games to a rather leaden, dull conclusion, whereas Divergent didn’t ever reach a conclusion at all, with the final movies having been shelved after the series ran out of steam and cinema tickets.  The Death Cure also rather unexpectedly manages to reunite viewers with characters from the first film that never got seen at all in the second.

When this cycle of youth adult films has left the cinemas and is looked back upon in five or ten years, The Maze Runner will, in all likelihood, be viewed as the most accomplished – and some reviewers are already saying that.  This is all the more remarkable given that these three movies were the first features directed by Wes Ball.  The casting was, in most cases, superb.  Dylan O’Brien managed to take the lead role and not allow it to dominate the films – despite his presence in most scenes, this is still an ensemble piece, allowing others to shine as and when required.  Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt, in particular, is superb, as is Will Poulter who rejoins the films in the third episode.  Despite this, Aiden Gillen seem to be on autopilot as the bad guy, with his motives never really explained, other than he has a job to do and he does as he’s told.   This is perhaps a flaw in the script, but there seems to make no attempt to add any depth here unlike, for example, Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige, the head of WCKD, who is as morally ambiguous as Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario), a trait that adds to the list of elements that separates these from similar films.  It will, as always in these cases, be interesting to see what the talented young cast that headed these movies, and director Wes Ball do next.

 

Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Movies

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2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Raymond Burr, and Barbara Hale passed away a year ago this month.  This blog post pays tribute to them in an examination of the Perry Mason movies made between 1985 and 1993.

People tend to look at you kind of funny when you tell them that you prefer the Perry Mason TV movies of 1985 to 1993 to the original series that ran for nine seasons from 1957 to 1966.  Raymond Burr, forever associated with the role, stated in interviews to promote Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of the TV movies, that he thought the first run of the series should have stopped after five seasons, and that he wanted to call it a day after seven.  He also said that he had been keen to make the occasional two-hour episode during that initial run in order to do Erle Stanley Gardner’s often complicated books more justice (excuse the pun) as well as to give more backstory to the main characters of Perry, Della Street (his secretary), and Paul Drake (his private investigator).  The TV movies that began in 1985 didn’t adapt any of Erle Standley Gardner’s original stories, but they did give the chance to give more development to the main characters that Burr had been so keen to do.

As a twelve-year-old back in 1986 when Perry Mason Returns was first shown on the BBC in the UK, I was entranced from the very beginning.  I caught most of the other TV movies featuring Burr over the next ten years or so, and have been revisiting them all again over the last few months after purchasing The Complete Movie Collection, which pulls together Burr’s 26 Mason TV movies as well as the four that were made directly after his death with other lawyer characters standing in for Mason who was always “out of town.”  It was a sad way for the films to limp to their inevitable conclusion, but Burr was apparently keen that the movies continue without him – although why investigator/lawyer Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses) wasn’t “promoted” to the running of the cases after Burr’s passing is something of a mystery.  This, at least, would have given the series at least a chance of working.

There are some significant differences between the TV movies and the original series, most notably that they are considerably more predictable.  The cases that Perry takes on nearly always involve a celebrity of some sort, working for a radio or TV station, or a stage production, or in film, or a politician, or even a notorious mobster.  This means that they often go over the same ground, which is a shame, but as with so many popular programmes on TV, it is the formulaic nature of the series that people love so much, and glitz and glamour was very much a staple of American TV dramas during this period.  Ironically, though, it is those stories that break away from the formula that are most memorable.

Take, for example, the Case of the Lost Love (1987), featuring Jean Simmons as guest star as one of Perry’s old flames.  The episode is particularly well-written and, for the first time, the writers start to feed in elements of Perry’s life away from the courtroom, and even touches on a subject such as mental health – and deals with it in a responsible and subtle way (especially considering this was three decades ago).  Moving even further away from the formula is The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990) which, along with the Lost Love episode, rates as the best of the movies.  Here we don’t have the killing of a loud-mouth TV presenter, or the writer of a tell-all book, but, instead, that of a Nazi SS Officer.  Mostly set in France, this tale also features one of the best casts assembled for the later Mason mysteries, with Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, Yvette Mimieux, and a wonderful turn from Theresa Wright.

Even the most run-of-the-mill of the movies are worth a watch, however, most notably because of the touching chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with more hints about their characters’ relationship over the years being revealed in some of the movies.  We learn, for example, in one episode (the title of which I shall not reveal in order to avoid giving spoilers) that Mason has a daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father).  In another, The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993), Burr’s penultimate appearance, Mason and Della finally share an intimate kiss just prior to the closing credits.  In a talk show appearance of his own in 1993, Burr offers the information that they had just filmed that scene in what now appears to be an obvious deflection of a question put to him about whether he and Barbara Hale had ever been romantically involved – Burr liked his private life to remain that way, and it was only after his death that it became public knowledge that he had been in a relationship for over three decades with actor Robert Benevedo, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in the late 1950s.  He even went out of his way to make up stories of having previously been married, with children, for reporters – saying that both his wife and children had died.  But what seems clear from the Telltale Talk Show Host is that the Mason/Della romance might have been developed in the films that would have been made had Burr not passed away, and there is little doubt that such a move would have pleased fans.

Some twenty-five years after Burr made his last appearance (in The Case of the Killer Kiss, 1993), the Mason TV movies remain staples of various cable television channels, and hold up as surprisingly entertaining ways to pass ninety minutes.  There is something remarkably comforting, even heartwarming, in Burr’s portrayal of the ageing Perry Mason – something grandfatherly, even.   There is also a certain reassurance here, too, that Perry Mason, striding along majestically in his fetching big black coat and hat, will provide us with adult entertainment that is still suitable for all, with a surprising lack of gore or violence considering the subject of murder.  This, too, was something that Burr spoke proudly of in promotional interviews when Perry Mason Returns was about to air.

There is more humour here than in the original TV series, and certainly Mason comes across as more human.  The relationship with Della Street is also different, and perhaps reflects more than ever the genuine affection that Burr and Hale clearly had for each other, as well as hinting that there was something more going on between Mason and Della than we were being told about.

All of this doesn’t mean that these are better than the classic TV series of the 1950s and 1960s – I doubt anyone would argue that – but there is still something very special about them and, unlike so many TV programmes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is far more to enjoy here than giant shoulder-pads and dodgy hair-dos.

Perry Mason: The Complete Movie Collection (a 15-disc set) is available from Amazon for approximately £25.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

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The release last year of the complete series of the 1930s and 1940s Universal Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies on blu-ray has, no doubt, had many, like myself, revisiting some of the films from these cycles that they hadn’t seen in some time – only this time in much better quality.  It is worth adding that, perhaps appropriately, the Invisible Man movies are nowhere to be seen on blu-ray with the exception of the original movie.  Without doubt, these films look wonderful in high definition, and some of them really come to life in a way they hadn’t in their DVD incarnation.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is a key example.  This is a weird, dark, and eerie film that came at the end of the first cycle of Universal horror films during the sound period.   On blu-ray, all of that weirdness seems even more startling, and the picture quality for a film of this vintage is truly stunning.

Werewolf of London (1935), from a year earlier, was another that I enjoyed revisiting over the Christmas period.  Not part of the Wolf Man series at all, but a stand alone effort from six years before Lon Chaney Jr started having a problem with facial hair, this one suffers a little from rather sedate pacing, but is still an interesting movie nonetheless and is certainly better than many of the Universal horror movies of the 1940s.

In fact, Werewolf of London was the last film I saw in 2017, and so it only seemed right that She-Wolf of London (1946)  was the first I screened in 2018.  This is probably the least-known of all the films on the recent blu ray sets, and yet it is also one of the best.  As with Werewolf of London, it is not part of the Wolf Man series, but a stand alone feature starring June Lockhart as a young woman who fears she has the family curse of becoming a werewolf when there are a series of murders and attacks in a park close to her home.

I confess I don’t have much time for the “House of” series, in which the various Universal monsters come together in one film, that dominated the 1940s horror cycle.  By this point, the series had, arguably, lost its way, becoming more fantasy (and comedy) than horror.  She-Wolf of London isn’t really traditional horror either – no hairy beasts are seen within the movie at all, with the except of a couple of dogs.  Instead, we have a film which seems to be a mix of Gaslightthe Val Lewton films for RKO, and even Rebecca.   It seems almost ironic that Universal, who at one point led the way with regards to horror during the previous decade, here borrows from what other studios were doing.  The central character’s obsession with her supposed family curse has a great deal in common with Cat People (1942) from the Lewton/RKO series  and The Undying Monster, made by Fox.  Sadly, She-Wolf of London doesn’t have the same intelligent script or sense of dread as Cat People, although it certainly treads some of the same ground thematically.  It is still a taut little thriller, aided and abetted by some really fine performances, including the wide-eyed June Lockhart herself, but also Jan Wiley, who does well in a far less showy role.  Sara Haden, meanwhile, chews up and spits out the scenery.

Running at only 61 minutes, the mystery element isn’t given room to be taxing, and the ending comes about rather suddenly, but the film seems remarkably classy compared to the other horrors that Universal were producing at the time, and the period atmosphere is nicely sustained throughout.   Certainly an enjoyable way of spending an hour if you prefer your horror to be of a sinister rather than supernatural variety.

Elvis Presley: The 1969 Vegas Season

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The following is an except from the book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, 2nd edition” available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.  

The day after the airing of the NBC TV Special, the New York Times announced: “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances.”[1]  Elvis’s season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, beginning on July 31, 1969, was to be his first live appearance in eight years (unless one counts the live segments of the TV show).  Unlike the TV show of the previous year, and the albums recorded in Memphis six months earlier, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Billboard raved that “the greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom….But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s, on stage Thursday.  It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when.”[2]  A week further on in the season, they reported that “nine years away from live performing have not affected his affinity for interpretation, combining the visual affects (sic) of the flaying arms and slowly gyrating hips; of his gutsy attack on quasi-blues songs or his shifting into a romantic milieu for Yesterday or Love Me Tender.”[3]

Norma Lee Browning in the Chicago Tribune takes time from her caustic assessment of Elvis’s appearance at a press conference to admit that “Presley’s smash opening in the showroom of the new International hotel, following Barbra Streisand’s fair-to-middlin’ engagement, has set a lot of showbiz folks back on their ears.”[4] Mary Campbell of the Ottawa Journal said that most of the audience were “old enough to have hated him 13 years ago and some of them admitted that they had…Rock music no longer gives cultural shock to the middle-aged.  And neither does Elvis Presley.  Presley still makes those ‘suggestive’ movements.  But the shocking of 1956 can be the nostalgic of 1969.”[5]

The third and final act of the Presley comeback was an unequivocal success, and it was hardly surprising that RCA were there to record a number of shows for a live album.  Six days of shows were recorded, and then a live album was assembled from the tapes.  Originally released as the first disc of From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the live album would eventually be re-released on its own with the equally catchy title of In Person at the International Hotel – or In Person for short.

The disc starts with Blue Suede Shoes, the number that Elvis used to open the shows.  The Vegas setting is obvious from the first notes of the album thanks to the introduction by the Bobby Morris Orchestra.  This is followed by an opening vamp from Elvis’s core band before Elvis finally starts singing.  His voice is strong (probably stronger than in the Memphis sessions earlier in the year), and he sounds confident and full of energy.   The song is taken at a faster pace than the studio versions (and, for some reason, Elvis repeats the same two verses rather than using the others), and the whole thing is over in two minutes, including the introduction and the vamp.

The high energy continues with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode.  Again, Elvis misses out a verse, the second in Berry’s recording, and substitutes it with a repeat of the third verse.  Elvis would continue to use the song in slightly different variations over the coming years.  It would be shorn of the repeated verse by the time of the performance on the Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, and would get the briefest of renditions in the final years, normally as part of the extended band introductions.  The version issued on In Person is probably the best Elvis version that has been released.  He rocks with abandon, spitting out the words at breakneck pace, and the band is as tight as a drum.

All Shook Up follows, at much the same pace as the previous two numbers.  The song doesn’t really work so well at this speed, but Elvis had a penchant for speeding up his 1950s hits on stage during the following eight years, and that habit appears to have been formed even at this stage.  It is a far cry from the shuffle rhythm of the studio recording, and it lacks charm and suggests there were some of his earlier hits that he struggled to update for his new live act.

Are You Lonesome Tonight gets a serious rendition from Elvis, with Millie Kirkham’s almost-otherworldly soprano providing a lovely obligato.  The performance is very different from the one captured on tape a couple of nights later in which Elvis gets a fit of giggles and laughs uncontrollably through almost the entire song.  That version, referred to affectionately as Are You Laughing Tonight, was released in 1980.

Elvis introduces Hound Dog as his “message song” for the evening.  The self-deprecating humour of these shows is often quite charming, but at other times just doesn’t work on record.  From this point of view, the live album released from these concerts doesn’t always work due to the often-sloppy editing.  There are long moments of silence (do we really want to hear Elvis drinking water?), and other times where the on-stage humour needs the visuals to work or where a joke goes on too long.

Hound Dog doesn’t receive the throwaway performance that it would in later shows, but it seems clear that, even in 1969, Elvis didn’t really know what to do with it.  It was no longer the yell of frustration and rebellion that it was in the 1950s, and the first verse is repeated over and over, leaving out the “high-classed” second verse on the vast majority of live performances. This demonstrates the conundrum that Elvis would find himself in for the next eight years – songs that were huge hits a dozen or more years earlier were not necessarily relevant to Elvis in his mid-to-late thirties.  His commitment now was often towards more recent songs of a more serious (and, in the coming years, more maudlin) nature.  And yet it was clear that he had to include the “oldies” in his set.  In 1969, the older songs generally got given proper attention, but they would later be used as a punctuation point in a show where Elvis could sing half-heartedly, catching his breath while handing out scarves to screaming fans.  In these 1969 shows, it is great to hear Elvis singing Hound Dog live, but there seems little point to it.  The arrangement has no real structure (it doesn’t build to a big finish), and it simply does the job and little else.  Not everyone agrees.  Cub Koda and Bruce Eder write that the guitar work of James Burton “puts a new edge on Hound Dog, coming up with something different than, yet vaguely similar to, Scotty Moore’s approach to the song in concert 14 years earlier.”[6]  One can only wish that Elvis had chosen to keep the switch to half-speed that was present in the live renditions from the 1950s.

The same can’t be said for I Can’t Stop Loving You.  Whereas the song was given a country flavour in the short jam session at the Memphis sessions earlier in the year, here it is given a full work-out and becomes a show-stopper, with a much more thought-out arrangement than many of the live versions of Elvis’s own hits.  Elvis’s vocal is both sincere and playful and the big finish is stunning, even if the cut-in of an audience member screaming is unnecessary and distracting.

Elvis romps through the r&b classic My Babe, using the song as a vehicle to show off his stronger vocal abilities.  A second version of the number was released in 1980, and this uses slightly different orchestration, but Elvis’s vocal isn’t as strong or controlled here, although it is always nice to hear the different arrangement, and fascinating that Elvis was still toying with his act this late in the engagment.

The medley of Mystery Train and Tiger Man is given a typically self-mocking introduction in which Elvis talks about the sound he had in the early days.  The sound here is brought up-to-date, though, with an arrangement that rocks like hell and features some great work from Ronnie Tutt on drums, with his riffs effectively punctuating Elvis’s vocals on Tiger Man.  The medley is, alongside Suspicious Minds, the highlight of the live album.

The recent Bee Gees hit Words gets a relatively perfunctory run-through.  Elvis’s vocal is sincere and committed, but the arrangement would be slightly modified for the Vegas season a year later, and those performances seem to have a bit more substance.

In the Ghetto doesn’t have the same impact in a live setting that it did in the studio.  The arrangement is beefier, and something is lost.  Elvis’s voice isn’t in such good shape here either, and he appears to be struggling with the low notes, with them having heavy vibrato and often threatening to go out of tune.  The biggest problem, though, is that Elvis hadn’t found a way to translate the intimate sound of the studio recording on to the concert stage, and this was something that would appear to cause him issues during the next eight years.  The ballads that made their way into the live act were, for the most past, ones with big arrangements and big choruses, which could be delivered with an impact during the live performances.  More fragile songs from the 1970s, such as I’m Leavin’ and Until It’s Time For You To Go were, like In the Ghetto, “beefed up” when sung in Vegas or on tour.  Elvis could have done with a short section in each show where the arrangements were stripped back to just him and a couple of musicians.  This would have resulted in some light and shade during the performance as well as giving an appropriate setting for Elvis to sing some of the quieter moments from his back-catalogue, whether hits such as Loving You and Don’t, or album tracks from the 1970s such as I Miss You or For Lovin’ Me.

The highlight of the original album and the Vegas season in general is Suspicious Minds.  This was Elvis’s latest single at the time, and he turns it into a showstopper that lasts over seven minutes.  Again, this lacks some of the vocal subtleties of the studio version, but here it doesn’t matter, as Elvis starts the number relatively sedately and then slowly but surely works it up into a frenzy over its mammoth running time.  This should be tedious, but it works superbly, and the excitement of the stage performance transfers surprisingly well to record.

The original album ended, as did the shows, with Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Taken at a faster pace than both the original studio recording and that used in the previous year’s TV special, the track becomes a closing credits theme song rather than receiving a fully committed performance.  Soon it would take on a new meaning, as Elvis would use the number in the vast majority of his live shows for the next eight years, and it would signal to the audience that their time with their hero was all but over.

The live section of the double album resulted in Elvis getting some of the best reviews of his career.  Don Heckman in the New York Times wrote that “the rhythmic surge is the same and peculiarly appropriate mix of Presley’s country twang with the rolling syllables of black blues still scorches the ear – what was successful a decade and a half ago is successful today.”[7]  Variety stated the live set is “packed with performer and audience excitement that explain the singer’s title as king of rock ‘n’ roll.  His vocals and poise are in top shape, and although he does considerable material over 10 years old, the backup updates the music.”[8] Robert Hilburn simply called the live album “the best thing Presley has done on record in years…Presley [demonstrates] the restless, unconventional vocal style that made him rock’s most important and most influential male singer.”[9]

Two more songs from this Vegas season were issued in 1970 on the album On Stage, primarily recorded in February 1970.  Runaway, a cover of the Del Shannon hit, receives a fine performance from Elvis, who gives the song a slightly harder edge than Shannon.  Years later, another performance was released, this time on a night when Shannon was in the audience.  It’s a nice moment when Elvis introduces him from the stage, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t this version that was released back in 1970.

The other song from 1969 on the On Stage LP is a rather bland take on The Beatles’ YesterdayIt was originally performed with the “na na na” refrain of Hey Jude tagged on the end, but this is omitted on the original release.  It is a pleasant enough rendition, but the arrangement is uninspired to say the least.

In 1991, RCA issued a three-album boxed set entitled Collector’s Gold, featuring outtakes from Elvis’s soundtrack and secular non-soundtrack recordings during the period 1960-1968, with a final disc given over to more performances from the 1969 Las Vegas season.  The emphasis here was on songs not included on In Person, although alternate versions of some of those titles were used to fill up the disc.  What these recordings show is that the double album released in 1969 should have been an all-live affair, with the Memphis material saved for a separate project.  Here we have a driving version of I Got a Woman, complete with a bluesy coda; a nice update of Heartbreak Hotel; a country-influenced version of Love Me Tender; and a fun medley of Jailhouse Rock and Don’t Be Cruel which teeters on the edge of being a throwaway during the latter half but doesn’t quite topple over.

With RCA recording, Elvis also tried out some of his newer material on occasion, and that is also included on the Collector’s Gold CD.  From the Memphis sessions, Elvis tried out Rubberneckin’, which works rather well in the live setting, and Inherit the Wind and This is the Story which suffer from Elvis losing his focus and fooling around just a bit too much.  From the TV show of the year before, Elvis includes Memories, a strange choice of song that simply doesn’t fit in this kind of live setting, and Elvis is out of breath, rather fatal for a song that requires such precise phrasing.  He also revives Baby What You Want Me To Do, but this time in a much more structured version than seen on TV the previous year. Elsewhere, there are one-off performances of Funny How Time Slips Away (nearly a year before Elvis turned to it in the studio) and Reconsider Baby, which is nearly as good as the studio recording from 1960, and certainly the best live performance of the song released thus far.  Sadly, the disc ends with an interminable rendition of What’d I Say, which might have been exciting to watch, but is remarkably tedious to listen to as Elvis shouts out the words rather than sings them, and the band play a series of solos.  It lasts for nearly six minutes, and is not remotely satisfying.

Over the last decade or so, a number of complete concerts from this Vegas season have been released by Sony both at retail level and on the collector’s label.  What these releases demonstrate is the remarkable consistency in both quality and choice of material within these shows.  There is relatively little variation between shows, with the majority of the material consisting of full throttle performances of past hits as well as the covers already discussed.  Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most interesting shows are the ones that veer most from the standard repertoire, and these are the dinner and midnight shows from August 26th, released as Live in Vegas and All Shook Up respectively.  The first of these features the alternate arrangement of My Babe, as well as performances of Inherit the Wind and Memories.  The midnight show, on the other hand, gives us renditions of Rubberneckin’ and This is the Story, as well as allowing us to hear the laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight within the context of the very loose show from which it originates.

These shows may well be the best performances that Elvis gave, but it could be  argued that they are not the most satisfying set-lists.  The concentration here is on rock ‘n’ roll.  Sure, there are a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure, but only Are You Lonesome Tonight really gets a decent treatment.  As we know, there was more to Elvis than rock ‘n’ roll.  There are almost no nods to his country influences here, and no gospel material at all.  By the following summer, he still wasn’t performing gospel songs on stage (except for an off-the-cuff performance) but at least the gospel sound was much more prominent, incorporated into the backing of some of the ballads, such as Just Pretend, and country songs became part of the live repertoire.  At this stage in 1969, then, Elvis’s set-list was surprisingly restricted, and ultimately built upon the black leather segments of the 1968 TV special.

Restrictive set lists notwithstanding, Elvis’s return to live performing was a huge success and, after years of having his career in the artistic and commercial doldrums, he was once again back on top.  It had taken just over three years (from the How Great Thou Art sessions to the live performances of July and August 1969), but the effort had been worth it.  Elvis now had his second chance – all he had to do now was build upon the foundation he had created for himself.

[1] Mike Jahn, “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances,” New York Times, December 4, 1968, 51.

[2] James D Kingsley, “Presley Faces Toughest Challenge in Las Vegas,” Billboard, August 9, 1969, 4.

[3] Eliot  Tiegel, “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage,” Billboard, August 16, 1969, 47.

[4] Norma Lee Browning, “Elvis, in Person, Still the King,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1969, Entertainment Section, 5.

[5] Mary Campbell, “The Pelvis Isn’t Stilled,” Ottawa Journal, November 1, 1969, TV Journal, 13.

[6] Cub Koda and Bruce Eder, “Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music, ed. Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 605.

[7] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[8] “Elvis, The Byrds, Neil Diamond, Rankin, Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Parks, Humble Pie Top New LPs,” Variety, November 19, 1969, 48.

[9] Robert Hilburn, “Live Albums Best for Displaying Artists Talents,” Lansing State Journal, December 6, 1969, D3.