Outside of the great civil rights heroes and some of the better presidents, few figures of the 20th century have attained American Folk Hero status as securely as Elvis Presley. Concisely sealed within the space of just over two decades, Elvis’ story and stature are deeply woven into American culture. His music remains, and largely still holds up, but it’s almost beside the point: Elvis is a fact, an archetype, a lifestyle. I was born just seven years after his death, but already it was as impossible to imagine sharing the earth with a living, breathing Elvis, as if he were a brontosaurus (or, perhaps more accurately given his post-mortem career as a tabloid fixture, Bat Boy).
So consider tonight’s Elvis double feature a chance to separate Elvis the Performer from Elvis the Tragic Demigod. First up is 1964’s VIVA LAS VEGAS, a breezy romp placed about midway through Presley’s career as a thespian. In the traditional Elvis Story, his movies usually represent the fall from grace, where the dangerously sexual redneck teen slowly metamorphosed into a genial, sanitized rom-com leading man. While there’s maybe nothing wrong about that view, it also misses the point. Yeah, Elvis’ movies are (mostly) dumb, but rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be dumb. In this one, Elvis plays a drag racer in the Las Vegas Grand Prix who finds himself waylaid by a beautiful swimming pool manager. Which, again: pretty dumb. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun, packed with some of Elvis’s best songs (including the title track, as well as his cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”), as well as one of his best leading ladies in the always-game Ann-Margret.
If VIVA LAS VEGAS represents the face of Elvis’ myth-making, ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS offers a glimpse of the man behind the curtain. Once again, Presley finds himself in Vegas, but rather than providing a glamorous narrative, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS offers a relatively modest documentary look at the King’s stage residency that would define the last few years of his career. The Elvis on view here is a far cry from the Sun Records smart-ass, but he’s still a few years away from full-on Fat Elvis – think of this period as “Elvis Impersonator Elvis.” But while his stage show had gotten increasingly chintzy, much of the film is devoted to the process behind it: Elvis forgets lyrics, hammers out the arrangement with his backing band, and goofs off with members of his “Memphis Mafia.” Think of it as the LAST TEMPTATION to VIVA’s PASSION. Or, you know, just think of both as an excuse to watch a great entertainer.
Sunday, March 16
VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964) dir. George Sidney 2:30 PM, 7:00 PM
ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (1970) dir. Denis Sanders 4:30 PM, 9:00 PM
55 Davis Square
Somerville, MA 02144