Jailhouse Rock was one of the first musicals to revolve around rock and roll and is one of Elvis Presley’s finest films.
Take the prison part out and this movie is basically a fictionalized biopic of the life of Elvis Presley. Maybe it’s because of the rebellious image but he didn’t die in a car accident, we can imagine James Dean as Vince’s character…if James Dean was Elvis and could sing.
Construction worker Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) ends up in jail after accidentally killing someone during a fight. He ends up in a cell with Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) and learns to play guitar. Vince performs on one of the national television shows featuring the inmates and begins to receive fan mail. However, Hunk blocks said mail from reaching Vince. Vince later receives all the mail upon his release. He starts working as a bar boy in a nightclub where Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) hears him singing. Peggy offers him to record a demo. Unfortunately, Geneva Records turns “Don’t Leave Me Now” into a song for Mickey Alba. Vince and Peggy decide to start their own label, Laurel Records, with Mr. Shores (Vaughn Taylor) running the business. Shores also narrates the film.
Vince rockets to stardom after “Treat Me Nice” becomes a hit. Hunk comes to see him to remind him of the pact they had made. Vince manages to get Hunk on the NBC show but his song gets cut. Hunk’s style of music just isn’t what people want anymore. Suddenly, Hunk joins the entourage.
After becoming an arrogant star and not talking to Peggy anymore, Vince ends up going to Hollywood. Custom at the time, the studio head asks Sherry Wilson (Jennifer Holden) to spend a day with Vince. It’s one of those things where they just do it for publicity but ultimately the two fall in love with each other. Unsurprisingly, Peggy reappears. The timing is more of a coincidence as Geneva offered to buy their record label. Their disagreement over the sale ends up with Hunk punching Vince and nearly destroying his career. That Vince is willing to forgive Hunk shows how loyal he is at a time when his career is on the line.
The key sequence of the film is the performance of the title song on the NBC show. When the song appears onscreen, it looks like a long take that stays on Elvis throughout the song. He is definitely having fun in what is by far one of his best moments in all of his movies. What elevates the performance is the elaborate choreography, which Elvis had a hand in creating. There is an argument that the dance sequence is the prototype for music videos. Presley has been syncing every number since music was added during post-production.
This movie became a game changer for the genre. It is not a musical book where the songs advance the plot. Instead, it’s a movie that evolves around a rock star. All the songs have their place in the film, but it’s not your traditional musical. It is certainly something else and maybe the cinema was not ready for a film like this in 1957. Interestingly enough, Presley’s arrival was also felt in the industry when he arrived in Hollywood . I mean, he was a musician, not your typical actor who rose through the ranks in the studio system.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were among the best songwriters of that era. They were reluctant to write music for Elvis, unhappy with his rendition of “Hound Dog”. The duo eventually came along and wrote a number of songs for Elvis to sing. They wrote four in four hours. Leiber and Stoller’s feelings changed as a result of this film. Stoller even appears in the movie as Vince’s piano player.
Sadly, co-star Judy Tyler would die in a car accident on July 3, 1957, days after production wrapped. For this reason, Elvis did not attend the premiere of the film.
Jailhouse Rock presents Elvis Presley at his best.
DIRECTOR: Richard Thorpe
SCREENPLAY: Guy Trosper
ACTORS: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, with Mickey Shaughnessy, Vaughn Taylor, Jennifer Holden, Dean Jones, Anne Neyland
MGM released Jailhouse Rock theatrically on November 8, 1957. Rating: 4/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the cinema on Substack.