With August 16 marking the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, any of a number of the old Elvisian saws come trotting out, for a week or two, for our latest appraisal. This time there is, yet again, the notion that Elvis pilfered black culture, and is thus an all-around bad dude, a rockabilly version of an anti-diversity bro. We also we have late-career plump, eyes-glazed-over Elvis, which is all some Millennials know about him. That goes as well for those who are lazy clods invested only in what is put in front of their face, and that Elvis iteration has been satirized so much that it’s bound to be in front of many faces.
Others will remember the bad soundtracks. Insomniacs are probably well versed in the Elvis filmography itself, since it’s scarcely a challenge to catch Elvis doing something on a beach with assorted bikini babes on your flat screen at three in the morning. Truth be told, Elvis movies can be pretty dire, but they usually have some element of redeeming charm, like an episode of The Brady Bunch, say, with that sense of perma-nostalgia even for those of us who weren’t around when they came out. They’re quaint, you can kill a couple hours with one of them as you do something else, and anyway quaint is better than gory violent.
Still, these old Elvis saws also seem to exist for the purpose of being corrected. We’ll leave the business about Elvis being a purloiner of black culture for another time, but early Elvis could be a downright modernist master of a strand of the blues that bounced like the blues never bounced before. That music will last as long as the music of Schubert, Duke Ellington, and the Beatles, provided we don’t succeed in killing off culture itself, as we seem hell-bent on doing.
But here’s another fun one: Elvis wasn’t a great actor. Olivier’s turn as Hamlet is under no competitive threat from Presley in the champion thespian department. But he did perform skillfully in what I’m going to call the first great rock-and-roll film, and a great film unto itself.
Michael Curtiz was in his mid-sixties when he came to direct Elvis in 1958’s King Creole. This was a man with a formidable roll call of masterpieces and assorted works of downright Hollywood bullion: We’re talking Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, and more. He was a studio director with an auteur’s stylistic flair. In a Curtiz film, the camera would be kept moving, fluidity was paramount, light and shadow played in the fashion of virtuosic noir directors like John Alton and Nicholas Musuraca. He blended populist appeal with arty suavity.
The climax of his glory run came in the 1940s, so King Creole was akin to an 11th-hour victory afterparty. At this point, the noir era was over, and the likes of rock-and-roll films were these sock-hop-type extravaganzas without much in terms of plot. You know the clichés: the girls plotting some misadventures for down at the malt shop later, the tough guys who look like they’d have to be excused from gym class in real life peacocking around, and then everyone bopping to the sound of their favorite bands. There was lots of bopping, little story, and even less character development. Rock-and-roll was considered the worm food of society, not anything you’d take seriously, not anything worthy of a film that adults could find thoughtful.
King Creole changed that. Elvis’s military deployment was pushed back sixty days so that he could make the film, in which he plays Danny Fisher, a 19-year-old high school student (he must have been held back on account of the concomitant delinquency that comes with rocking and rolling). Danny’s mom has died, his dad has lost his job, and the family has moved to New Orleans, where they don’t have much money. A girl at school is being super aggressively hit on, so Danny clocks the hitter, ends up partnering up with the girl, gets reamed out by the principle, and drops out of school. He’s briefly involved with a gang, distracting a store owner with his singing while his confederates rob the place; he then switches over to a job at a nightclub where, you guessed it, it’s eventually discovered that, hey, this boy can sing.
Danny’s father gets a job at a pharmacy, which involves him being belittled in front of his son. There are all kinds of emotional pushes and pulls, and various twists on loyalty, in what becomes a gritty little film in the form of rock noir. The music is brassy, even strutty you might say, and yeah, the plot is a little James Dean-ish. But Elvis is damn good at projecting the kind of confliction I think we all feel at least from time to time. So, for example, you want to do right by a given person because you should, you want to do right by another person, too, because if you don’t that might make you a bad person, but how in the midst of all of these social equations do you do right by yourself? And if you do, are you that much more cut off from everyone else than you were before you put yourself out there? Do you have to make yourself lonely when you conduct yourself honorably?
King Creole raises precisely such questions, so it is possible to respect it even if you don’t care a jot about rock-and-roll. Elvis did not create this effect by himself; Curtiz evoked a very serviceable performance from him, and he seems to have done it by keeping the clichéd watch-how-coolly-I-can-sneer-because-I’m-a-sexy-rebel mannerism well in check. Elvis playing Danny Fisher becomes a kid you can feel for, and when you feel for a kid, you connect with a kid. And if you connect with a film on that account, then the film has done its job and has achieved more than most films do. It’s a film worth caring about because the film gives the impression of caring about you.
The best art always creates a synergy between the art itself and that member of an audience who has come to spend some time with it. Six years later, Richard Lester would round up four Liverpudlian lads to make A Hard Day’s Night, which also does not require you to have any interest in rock-and-roll to thrill to it emotionally, intellectually, and physically. It was fun, it was arty, and it was even introspection-friendly—especially if you saw it mid-puberty.
As it happens, Richard Lester and the Beatles had seen King Creole. It’s hard to know if anyone had thought beforehand that you could make a rock-and-roll picture that was also just a picture, no need for the qualifying adjectival label. That makes King Creole a genre progenitor, as well as a movie for your brain to dance to.