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Bret fails to fathom the King's magic

There is very little here that Elvis fans don't already know, says Joe Jackson

Elvis: The Hollywood Years

David Bret

Robson Books, #17.95stg

ONCE upon a time a teenage boy became a cinema usher in Loew's State Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee. And like millions of kids he stared at that silver screen and dreamed of becoming a movie star. Tragically, roughly 30 years later, that same boy, now 42, drew his last breath in the same city, tortured, in part, by the thought that his dream of being accepted as a 'serious actor' had ended with him being regarded as a sick joke in Hollywood. And with most of his 32 movies relegated to the cinematic scrap heap by critics, the general public and even some of his own fans. And by that man himself:Elvis Presley.

Even so, one of the great ironies of Presley's career is that his movies arguably the single most derided set of films of all time are perennially popular and sell in phenomenal numbers on video and DVD. Why? The answer is simple. The presence, in those movies, of Presley himself.

Let's face it, even from the start, back in 1956, fans didn't flock to see Love Me Tender because it was a great western! On the contrary, it was a relatively mediocre, B-feature, horse-opera. But the movie was elevated out of the ordinary by the charmingly gauche acting style of Presley, his irrepressible sexual energy and the transcendent quality he brought to his singing of the movie's title tune. From there, right up to the moment Presley closes his eyes while listening to his gospel group singing Sweet, Sweet Spirit in his final movie Elvis On Tour in 1973, fans would always flock to his films to savour such moments.

Sadly, for Elvis, such moments were invariably musical. Meaning? When Hollywood became aware of this fact it, in effect, signalled the beginning of the end of his dreams of being accepted as a serious actor. Indeed, he had hoped that Love Me Tender would contain no songs, saying "I signed to be an actor, not a singer in movies." And even though Elvis's pre-army movies such as Jailhouse Rock and King Creole the latter directed by Michael Curtiz, often cited as featuring Presley's best performance and definitely his own favourite were credible dramas fans clearly did not want to see their hero in post-army, angst-ridden, Tennessee Williams-type tales such as Wild In The Country, in which he played a mother-obsessed, potential murderer. Or Flaming Star, where Elvis, who was part Native American, played a half-caste torn between two races in a movie director Don Siegal intended to be a coded comment on the Civil Rights struggle of the early Sixties. All of which tapped into the more shadowed areas of Presley's psyche and helped him to produce, in both films, some of his most authentic moments on screen. In fact, director Hal Kanter once suggested that tapping deeper into this energy, could have made Presley as powerful an actor as one of his heroes, Marlon Brando, who had originally been signed to play the lead in Flaming Star. However, much to Presley's disgust, and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker's delight, both films were relative flops and led directly to Blue Hawaii, which became the prototype for what Elvis himself dismissed as the "travelogues" that subsequently dominated his career. Though in being so dismissive of his entire movie career Elvis was needlessly denigrating many of his better films such as Follow That Dream, Kid Galahad, Love In Las Vegas and Change of Habit. Though these obviously were not as memorable as the movies the man could have made but never did, often because his manager said they wouldn't suit his image.

Or, if the truth be told, they couldn't always sustain the kind of soundtrack albums that sold by the millions. Movies such as Sweet Bird of Youth, Midnight Cowboy and the Striesand/Kristofferson version of A Star Is Born.

So did I learn all this from David Bret's book Elvis: The Hollywood Years? Not in the slightest. Sure, Bret does identify, for example, that even in one of Presley's dumbest movies, Harem Holiday, the "prison scene" where he performs So Close Yet So Far is "one of the most moving Elvis has ever played". But, overall, there is very little here that won't already be known by most Elvis fans. And there is too much Bret doesn't know.

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He rather inexplicably describes Clambake as "a stunner from start to finish" seemingly unaware that Presley, when he first read the script, deliberately bashed his head off the wall in his bathroom to prolong his stay at home and thus avoid starting what he knew would be one of his worst movies ever. Stunning, indeed.

Also, many fans like myself will find totally tiresome Bret's obsession with the gay and lesbian connotations in Presley's life and movies. And the ludicrous claim that Parker "controlled" Elvis, in part, because he bought the silence of scandal sheets that wanted to tell the world of the King's alleged affair with Nick Adams. Those stories have been rubbished years ago.

Yet even more tiresome is the author's space-filling tendency to summarise the plot of each Presley movie ad infinitum while giving little space to any kind of socio-political, semiological or even psychological analysis. Yet, in the end, the book's greatest failing is that Bret doesn't even refer to the spiritual power of Elvis Presley which makes magic of even his most mundane movies. Even if it is only for moments. If you don't look at that aspect of Presley's talent you can't even begin to fathom the man.

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