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Elvis Presley Double Feature: G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii


It seems to be my day for doubles and so today I am going to write about Elvis Presley’s two best musical – 1960’s “G.I. Blues” and 1961’s “Blue Hawaii”.

You can blame Colonel Tom Parker for Elvis Presley’s evolution from King Of Rock to B-Movie Matinee idol but I would say it takes two to sell yourself this short and I would also say that in the late 50s the trajectory of popular vocalists from pop stars to movie stars is well document and you could go back at least to Bing Crosby and maybe further, Al Jolson maybe, to 1960 and see how that was the way it was done and so the problem becomes more of quality control or lack thereof.

Though at first, till he got drafted, it seemed like he might build himself a serious career as a movie actor, upon his return it became apparent where the bucks were. In 60 he starred in the Hal Wallis musical “G.I. Blues” and the Western “Flaming Star” and in 61 “Blue Hawaii” and “Wild In The Country”. Guess which the hits were and then guess what direction his career went it.

“G.I. Blues” is a highly fictional biographies about an imaginary Elvis stand in who formed a band in the army and fell in with a Fraulein. By the next movie “Blue Hawaii” Presley had dropped that dame, left the army and went home to Hawaii where he had fake fights with his parents because he wanted to prove he could do it alone before marrying local talent. Even the names share a continuum..

Both albums had, within whatever structure of decency you want to put it, pretty good soundtracks. Cameron Crow used an early take of “Pocketful Of Rainbows” on the soundtrack for “Jerry McGuire” and between the two albums if you have a taste for this kinda stuff you’re gonna know a lotta it and even if you don’t know it both albums were huge hits spending hundreds of weeks on the charts and you can tell why. “Blue Hawaii” had “Can’t Help Falling In Love” topped the charts and did what Parker wanted to do: it placed him in the same place Bing Crosby was at that point of his career -after all, it was Bing’s song first.

The complaint with Presley’s albums is they were essentially travelogues with chicks and songs and interchangeable Presley roles and unfortunately that’s the truth because for every “Kissing Cousin” or “Viva Las Vegas” there were three “Harem Scarum“‘s and it really began here (you might even say he began to die around here -it was seventeen years till his death but as the years and the movies rolled past he began to resemble a zombie and when you die at the age of forty-two even if the token reason is an OD on downers in the end it is other things that are killing you.

And so you have the fake, pretend, magical Elvis (not that different from the fake Jackson) of the movies and of “G.I. Blues”. The real Presley was romancing the fourteen year Priscilla while he was in the army, in the movie he was romancing the professional dancer Juliet Prowse and in the movie the romance is an odd stock and a bit different than those to come because of the setting. The music was a sort of easy listening to soft rock doo dad, full of rainbows and big boots and one of those days but El is a good G.I, and he falls in love and gets the girl and the songs are really, really, like weirdly, good. Perhaps this is partially the effect of nostalgia on me but I love these songs (and those on “Blue Hawaii”)… they are good natured trifles but real populist trifles.

“Wooden Heart,” is both the single worst and, well, not the single worst moment in Presley’s career with him singing to a wooden puppet on his knees behind a puppet stage so only his head and shoulders are showing: it’s as if America had gotten its absolute revenge on Presley for teaching them what male sexuality looked like and the male puppet beats El on the head at the end of the song and as Pres disappears from the screen it is a perfect metaphor for the absolute end of the EP who was the sexiest man, greatest artist, most supremely gifted American musician with the exception of Armstrong (AND ONLY ARMSTRONG) of all time. But, as a pop song in a family movie it is a glorious bit of fluff and charm worthy of a Bing Crosby or more like a Danny Kaye. Watch it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05ZgyoZvhgI

El leaves “G.I. Blues” with his big boots on and enters “Blue Hawaii” still in his blues and now with a name change from Tulsa to Chad and kissing the stewardess as he gets on the plane in Hawaii but he will be out of em in moments in a sports car swearing life long infidelity to the gorgeous Joan Blackman.

The movie goes through the usual (or not so usual, this was the first Presley as travelogue movie) romantic and business entanglements; all sweet and meaningless and again the songs are surprisingly good. The title track, “Can’t Help Falling In Love” -a staple of his live performances till the end of his life, “No More,” and “Moonlight Swim” the sort of summer is for lovers’s stuff that makes you feel just in the mood for innocence and romance and youth.

And this was the height of Presley’s movie career!!! So while being a twee movie star is far from the teenage hurricane who transformed the USA and youth culture and the world with his hips it isn’t nothing at all. Presley is still a legend and still beloved by millions upon millions so while it can be depressing on some level sleep walking through these movies they aren’t always the vacuous nonsense they appear to be: they demand a response the way a romantic novel might demand a response. But they won’t change the world.

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