Films starring insanely popular bands, musicians or singers have always had varying success depending on how you personally feel about that performer. “Hard Day’s Night” could be one of the greatest pieces of cinema you’ll ever see or just a look at a day in the life of the Beatles, all depending on how you feel about the boys from Liverpool, while the same can be said for nearly every film with Bob Dylan.
But the biggest example of this in Hollywood has always been Elvis Presley and the wide range of films he made during his long and varied career, from tongue-in-cheek comedies to exploring Seattle’s world fair. Though none of his 31 movies were quite as personal and heartfelt as “Jailhouse Rock,” a stark contrast to his other film appearances. Shot in black-and-white, the story is said to have drawn inspiration from many of Elvis’ real life experiences, namely finding fame and fortune from an early age and how that shaped him as he became an adult.
Even then, this type of story has been told many times before and with greater gravitas. It feels like “Jailhouse Rock” doesn’t quite go all the way with its darker, more personal premise about how fame corrupts and changes people, and pulls back to remind the audience that they’re watching an Elvis Presley movie. So, in that respect, how you feel about this film depends on how you feel about Elvis as both a musician and a person.
Elvis plays Vince Everett, a young construction worker who accidentally kills a stranger in a bar fight and is sentenced to two years in prison. While there, his cellmate, washed-up country singer Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) teaches Vince how to sing and play the guitar, and finds out that he has a natural talent for it. Once Vince gets out of prison, he sets out to make a new name for himself in the music business despite his standoffish and fiery attitude.
I feel the only reason parts of “Jailhouse Rock” works is because the journey Vince undergoes once he’s released from prison so closely parallels Elvis’ own journey. It is a case of art imitating life and life imitating art, watching Elvis struggle with the lives he’s stepped on to get where he is, as well as the raw talent and charisma that made him a star in the first place. To see Elvis be put in a position like this, and with a camera pointed at him the entire time, makes “Jailhouse Rock” worth watching.
That being said, the film moves slowly, has a rather unpleasant and uncomfortable tone throughout most of it, and ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth with its half-baked climax and resolution. It feels like they couldn’t make up their mind if they wanted this to be a serious dark drama with someone who has experienced how dark it can be, or a happy musical about a misguided talent with a heart of gold, and that hurts the tone and atmosphere of this movie.
Still, if you like Elvis, “Jailhouse Rock” is worth checking out, if only to see Elvis basically playing himself. But if that doesn’t interest you, nothing else about this one will either.
Final Grade: C