When one mentions Elvis Presley musicals, the typical thing that comes to mind is a frothy, inconsequential little romance slapped together with little care, with Elvis playing a laid-back, carefree character with a heart of gold, singing songs for no apparent reason. Since the mold that formed that cliché hadn't been made yet in 1957, however, Jailhouse Rock manages to be both an unusual entry in Presley's filmography as well as a frequently powerful character study that includes its songs as a natural part of its story.
Elvis stars as Vince Everett, a lug who kills a woman's abusive boyfriend in a bar and is sent to the penitentiary for one to ten years. His cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), is an old country singer who recognizes that Vince has some talent. That's made even more clear when Vince appears in a morale-building concert that is locally televised. Hiding Vince's resulting fan mail, Hunk convinces him to sign a contract splitting their future earnings 50/50. When Elvis gets out, he meets Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler), who does record exploitation and encourages deejays to play tunes and jukeboxes to carry them. Recognizing the same talent Hunk saw, she gets Vince to cut a record, first imitating Hunk disastrously, and then developing his own Elvis style. After a few problems, Vince becomes a hit, but problems brew when Hunk comes to collect and fame exposes the ugly side of Vince's personality.
Other than the stay in the jailhouse, there's a lot of parallel to Elvis' own career, with his records being immediate hits, then turning to television and film, conquering each in turn. It makes one wonder whether he was similarly cruel to his supporters and hangers-on; some of the sequences of him sadistically wearing down Peggy are painful to watch. While there's some decency there, Vince is also an egomaniac with a vicious temper. Certainly the smugness that created Elvis' famous sneer is a big part of Vince's character as well. And of course, there's the infamous haircut scene that parallels the shocking moment when the Army cut Elvis' pompadour and sideburns.
The mood of the film is darker than virtually any other Elvis vehicle, with a decidedly negative spin on its hero, willing to kill enemies or friends, depending on his mood. For that matter, I don't believe there's any other Elvis movie where you see him get whipped (and that allows for another opportunity to see him shirtless, for the teenage girls). It also doesn't hesitate to paint the record industry as full of sleazy thieves. There are half a dozen Leiber & Stoller songs present, including the classic title track; according to the extras four of these songs were written in about four hours in a single afternoon, surely one of the most intense creative bursts on record of that's true. Because the story is about the music industry, the songs naturally fit in as performances or recording sessions, making them feel entirely natural in context, rather than the often distracting songs-out-of-nowhere that make musicals annoying to some. The big television program production number of Jailhouse Rock is a fascinating bit of weirdness, as if Busby Berkeley had collaborated with Robert Weine, with elaborate choreography of dancing inmates against a German Expressionist setting of abstract cell doors. But it has definite power as Elvis lets loose with his singing and dancing. It's probably one of the best set pieces in any Elvis movie, and it holds up well thanks in part to its unusual character that makes it almost timeless.
If Vince isn't Elvis (and he probably isn't), then he does a fine job of acting here; he's quite credible in the lead, with some echoes of the portrayal of Jett Rink in Giant by James Dean. One expects to see him a dozen years down the line, stumbling drunk. He has better chemistry with Shaughnessy than Tyler, frankly, and she doesn't get a lot to do other than look hurt by Vince's callousness. Jennifer Holden is more entertaining as the starlet who is assigned to keep Vince company, appalled at his boorishness and doing whatever she can to get away from him. There's a solid supporting cast with plenty of character actors such as Glenn Strange, Dean Jones and Percy Helton.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer: One
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratio: yes
Image Transfer Review
The black and white widescreen picture has lovely shadow detail and texture; if you were skeptical about whether HD could do much for black and white photography even after Casablanca, here's some more proof for you. The greyscale is excellent, and texture is constantly eye-catching in its naturalism. I didn't see any sign of edge enhancement or other artifacting. The source print is virtually immaculate, with scarcely a speckle to be seen.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Mono: English, French, Spanish, Remote Access: yes
Dolby Digital / TruHD: English, Remote Access: yes
Audio Transfer Review
In addition to the original mono, there's a DD+ 5.1 remix that also appears in TrueHD. The difference between the various tracks is significantly apparent only on the songs, but they sound marvelous on the TrueHD track, with a nice, expansive soundstage. It's quite a clean track, without much deep bass other than on the songs, but the bass line in particular on (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care has luscious immediacy.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by author Steven Pond
Author Steven Pond contributes a commentary that's fairly thorough in its analysis, with little dead space. Pond is appreciative but not fawning over Elvis, making it seem like a fair-handed discussion. The documentary The Scene that Stole Jailhouse Rock goes into detail about the songs, and the elaborate dance sequence, though it does oversell its point at times. The chat with Leiber and Stoller is certainly worth the price of admission, though, as they openly admit they disdained Elvis right up until he performed the title track. Finally, there's the theatrical trailer, but neither it nor the documentary are presented in HD.
Extras Grade: B+
One of the best Elvis movies, Jailhouse Rock holds up solidly, and the musical numbers come across vibrantly in HD. Recommended.