Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1957.

Before watching the movie:

Early summaries I saw were all about Elvis’s character learning music in jail, so I was expecting a plot entirely in the jail, but looking a little closer, it seems like more of the story is about how the music changes his life outside of jail. That’s not as interesting to me, but then, I guess the story I was expecting was Prisoners of Love. At least I know the music will be good.

After watching the movie:

Buying rounds off his paycheck, Vince Everett is approached by a lady in the bar who asks if he’ll buy her one. Very quickly, the man who thought she was with him accosts her, and Vince comes to her defense. Hoever, Vince defends her with too much vigor and kills the man with his bare fists, leading him to be sentenced to over a year in jail for manslaughter. His cellmate, Hunk Houghton, was a big star singing country a decade ago before going to jail, and Hunk gives Vince some pointers on how to sing and play guitar better, and he becomes great. When Vince is released, he tries to get a job singing in a club, but is rebuffed and instead meets Peggy Van Alden, a pop singer’s promoter, who encourages Vince to record a demo and find his own style. Once they get published, Vince is an overnight sensation, but the tension over the nature of their relationship is a strain, and when Hunk gets out of prison, he’s not very happy to find his protegé has passed him by either.

The music in this movie is of two styles. Hunk’s more classic country style can be beautiful, but it’s not my thing, and it’s held up as something antiquated. Vince’s Elvis style makes the music much more fun, even the ballads. I don’t really have an ear for what’s bad singing, but I don’t think this had any. Just bland singing, which was very clearly demonstrated. The centerpiece, the title song number, actually doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the movie very well, but it’s part of a high-budget television special, so it’s not unreasonable for it to stand out.

Vince is a man with a short fuse. I thought he’d be more sympathetic since he’s written for a major pop idol, but just because his jail sentence was for defending a woman from an abuser doesn’t mean he’s an innocent, all-around likeable guy. His entire problem is that he lashes out without thinking and then gets stuck with the consequences, driving away everyone who cares about him. That just doesn’t happen with the carefully pasteurized pop idols of the 50s and 60s, but Elvis made it big on hip gyrations that television couldn’t show, so maybe he couldn’t be entirely tamed. Presley does pretty well selling the role as well.

I cared about the story more than I thought I would, and the songs that aren’t meant to be outmoded add spice to it. It’s not the romp I was led to believe it was by its iconic images, but it stands on its own pretty well.

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