Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Loving You (1957, Hal Kanter)

It seems premature for Elvis to be staring in his own biopic two films into his movie career, but Loving You is but a few cliché steps away from being just that.  Like he would do in his next two films before leaving for the Army, Elvis plays a near autobiographical up-and-coming singer.  His All-American Deke Rivers goes from modest beer delivery driver who fools around with a guitar to the future of the industry, made all the more real by the fact that Presley still looks a bit uncomfortable in his own skin.  And while the film documents Presley's skyrocket into worldwide stardom, the film grounds his success as a country boy whose parents (Gladys and Vernon Presley) even make an appearance at the Grand Theater.  Though he plays an orphan in the picture, Elvis's real life Oedipal complex would only worsen after Loving You: his mother died in 1958 and Elvis vowed never to watch the film again as it was too difficult. 

The film shows a very literal shift to the prominence of rock and roll.  Washed up country-western performer Tex Warner (Wendell Corey as an equally sad-sack, but less cliché version of Jeff Bridges's Bad Blake; evidence that tried and true music tropes can be recycled for ages) needs a boost, just one more chance to get back in the game.  Deke has a "different way with a song" and is picked up by Warner's publicist Glenda Markle (Lizabeth Scott in her final performance) as an opening act.  That is, until the phenomenon of rock and roll eclipses the aged country standard.  After all, the film isn't an underdog's triumphant return to relevance but the making of youth culture.

There are moments of real pathos in the side-story:  Glenda tearfully tells Tex that Deke is the future and his time is over in a scene that exhibits how important the supporting cast was in Elvis's early films.  All the scenes between Scott and Corey have a warm, knowing chemistry that grounds the film that could have easily descended into teenage vapidity.

Much of Loving You is a road picture as Deke travels from small town to small town performing the same songs ("Hot Dog", "(Let's Have A) Party" and the pretty good "Got a Lot O' Livin' To Do" are all performed multiple times) in a strange Waiting For Godot wandering for much of the film.  They eventually break the "big cities", but not a lot happens in the interim.  There are only seven songs on the soundtrack, but they are among the best of Elvis's film career ("Teddy Bear", "Mean Woman Blues") and better, he means them.

Loving You doesn't boast Presley's best acting performance or the best storyline, but it is his most optimistic work.  It's as if in writing his own history, a wide-eyed future and genuine love for rock and roll could also write his own future.  Where later films like Paradise, Hawaiian Style showed Elvis to be world-worn beyond recognition, Loving You boasts a love for the genre and a hope that he could do this forever.  Not only is it now a strange, lost nostalgia (a nostalgia propelled by the soft pastel of '50s Technicolor), it warns us to be careful what we wish for. -- **½ / four stars

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