I'm not sure I've ever seen a full Elvis movie prior to Jailhouse Rock. Even though I was born a few years before Elvis died, he always felt like a relic to me, something my mom liked, and musically uninteresting compared to my earliest oldies fixations, The Beatles and, my first favorite singer, Ricky Nelson (who was obviously an Elvis-lite). I'm certain that I tried to watch an Elvis movie during my teen years, just to see what the fuss was about, but seem to recall bailing out after only half a chance, considering it a fluffy star vehicle with no substance. Taking echoes of these low expectations into this month's viewing of Jailhouse Rock, I was surprised not only by the appealing plainness of Richard Thorpe's direction, but also by how Elvis' star appeal was leveraged quite well within a semi-raw and often unflattering drama.
In Jailhouse Rock, Elvis plays Vince Everett, a careless young hot-head whose lethal punch in a bar fight lands him in jail. Under the tutelage of his musician cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), Vince hones his own talents, and, gains success as a recording star after his release. Despite the tough-love efforts of his music promoter Peggy (Judy Tyler) to keep him on the straight and narrow, the same destructive impulses that first got Vince into legal trouble also threaten to ruin his career.
Although a lot of Jailhouse Rock is just letting Elvis be Elvis — a baby-faced mix of innocent charm and sassy indifference who seems to float through every situation with style but no direction — there's a lack of polish to his performance that is refreshing and unpredictable. In a movie that is essentially a parade of tropes — bar fights, prison rules, the perils of success — Thorpe shrewdly underplays them all, allowing these familiar bits to inform the unsteady emotional state of the protagonist rather than defining the entire movie as yet another boilerplate melodrama. However, within each of these tropes lurk unexpected nuggets of complexity, like Vince's almost complete disregard for the art of music with, instead, a single-minded determination to exploit his own talent for riches and excess.
Elvis at his most unfiltered is the anchor for Jailhouse Rock, and he holds the movie together throughout some odd tone shifts and inconsistent narrative quirks that might have derailed a movie with a less-special figure at its core — and his genuine vulnerability keeps Vince attractive as a protagonist despite some darkly undesirable character traits. The best scenes in Jailhouse Rock are, in fact, those which Elvis is allowed to simply exist within a scene and react, or to sing in a pared down, direct format. On the other hand, the iconic "big" production of the title song is the movie's weakest moment, drowning Elvis in the noise of dancers and gimmickry.
Both Shaughnessy and Tyler are well-used in their supporting roles. He's got a compelling mix of hardness and gentleness that keeps Hank from slipping too easily into stereotype, and Tyler exudes in her slight role — a diet version of Patricia Neal's character in the same year's A Face in the Crowd — a bright and sharp openness not dissimilar to Emma Stone's; tragically, she died prior to film's release.
Jailhouse Rock was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Connor Ryan Adamson. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #336 / 1316 (74%), making it his 5th favorite Musical Drama out of 23. It ranked on my Flickchart at #994 (75%), putting it at number 20 on my chart of 52 Musical Dramas.