Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spinout (1966, Norman Taurog)

Spinout is so chaotic that it almost works.  Though not conventionally screwball, the film takes pieces from the existing Elvis formula and throws them at a wall.  It's a loud (but not obnoxious), frantic (but not quite kinetic) mashup of a Presley picture which isn't quite a compliment, but I'll take it.

To put things into perspective a bit, 1966 saw a few important things in the history of rock and roll.  Those things included Pet Sounds and Revolver.  While some might attribute the success and popularity of those two pieces to innovative song craft and the propulsion of the "album" as a unified piece of art, some marketers in the Presley camp thought perhaps it was due to a bunch of goofy guys being in a band instead of just one singer.  I mean, I like "God Only Knows" as much as the next guy too, but it's hard to beat the "you stepped on my french fries!" hamburger camaraderie of five guys goofing around with the tape rolling in the Beach Boys' "Bull Session with 'Big Daddy'", right?  Right?

So, like Girl Happy, Elvis's Mike McCoy is a frontman to a band of forgettable minors as opposed to a one-man show.  But that's not all, Viva Las Vegas was a success too, so Elvis can also race cars in this one.  And, heck, the more girls the better, so we'll have three girls vying for Elvis's hand in marriage instead of the usual two.

Only, I'm not convinced that this riffing of the typical Elvis formula isn't somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  And a few of the characters on the sideline really sell it, not the least of which is played by the spunky Deborah Walley (no stranger to bikini, Hawaiian or racecar pictures herself).  Walley's character, Les, is the jealous girl-next-door drummer in Mike's band.  Obvious to everyone but Mike, Les nearly outbursts when Mike's attention is drawn to wealthy sophisticate Cynthia (Shelley Fabares) or when he starts becoming the subject of bookworm Diana St. Clair's (Diane McBain) next piece, The Perfect American Male.

The introductions of Cynthia and Diana are ludicrous as to do the screwball genre proud: one has her father offer the band $5000 to play her birthday party, the other hunts Mike down in the woods to study him for her book.  Mike has no problem kissing and telling, but unlike any Elvis we've seen before, he plays remarkably hard to get.  Elvis refuses to be tied down so, in opposition Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas, Spinout doesn't end in a wedding.  It ends in three.

Elvis walks away from the altar, marrying off all his suitors to better fits (more perfect American males?).  As such, there is are nearly too many characters in this movie but they are adequately acted and the lack of one-man-show structure is a benefit to the narrative.  While it's obviously no Palm Beach Story, it's a pleasant and unoffensive tryst along the same lines.  It's an Elvis movie that bucks trend, and is owed some credit for it.  Believe it or not, Elvis doesn't even get in a brawl in this one.

Like any movie where Elvis drives a convertible, there is a large amount of green-screen.  However, Taurog's treatment of it for dialogue rather than travelogue makes it forgivable and relatively unnoticeable.  Furthermore, the choreography of some one-off light gags (like the band setting up camp) is a testament to Taurog's circumspection if not outright sophistication.  It is also proof that, in the hands of a veteran filmmaker (as opposed to television director), an Elvis movie can have a tight budget and studio lighting without looking cheap.  The songs aren't particularly memorable, but they also don't stand out like a sore thumb when they come out of nowhere.  Here, they never take away from the narrative and, for a change, we're anxious to get back to it.

Spinout doesn't go out of its way to make Elvis a deity or even a particularly likable character (one particularly uncouth song has Elvis singing that he loves his women like a "Smorgasbord").  The film is shaken up with so much commotion, Elvis is allowed to portray the main character without having to constantly be the central focus.  While not every attempt at humor pays off, the scattershot hits enough to make it worthwhile.  Spinout is perhaps the least Elvisy movie he made up to this point, and it is stronger because of it. -- **/four stars

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