I went to the Capri Theatre in Old Cloverdale in Montgomery, AL a few weeks ago to see a screening of Jailhouse Rock (1957) starring Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, and Mickey Shaughnessy. I sort of loved it.
It’s a ridiculous film in so many ways (like musicals can be), and I was ready to make fun, but I have to confess I alternately gasped and sucked in my breath as Elvis sang or “acted” (not so great). And it wasn’t all my own silliness. The theater was packed with women born in the late 1930s and after (long after for some of us–just to be clear) who had been mad about Elvis when he was young, the cool, hip-shaking Elvis. As they watched, they tipped their heads together, slapped hands over their mouths when they giggled, grabbed at each others hands and held hands, and exchanged those knowing glances that only girls can exchange about boys who take their breath away.
I turned to my girlfriend who I attended with at some point and said, “Look at him. Just look at him. Lord have mercy.” Or something akin to that. What happened? It was like there were two selves watching: my modern, cynical self who sneers at hokum and openly sexist palaver, and the me who is totally and entirely capable of suspending disbelief at a moment’s notice whenever, wherever, should a romantic moment present itself–ah, sigh, how sweet, oh my. Eventually the hokum-lover killed the hokum-hater, and I wandered dreamily out of the theater at the end thinking, “That was so good.”
I did. I said it aloud and meant it. But I was not alone. When the lights came up, it was me and 400 other women–not too many younger than me, but many were a whole lot older. And they were transported. They were cheered and delighted and whispering and chattering and giggling (still) sharing stories of when they’d seen Elvis live or gotten their first Elvis 45 or LP (for those who are unfamiliar with these terms–go look them up). I don’t think I ever really got the Elvis thing on an emotional level before.
I have always loved Elvis as an icon of something very American and very 20th century. Sort of the way I love Frank Sinatra. I admire them both–remarkable and extraordinary voices which moved millions. I enjoy listening to some of the music they recorded, but I don’t buy in all the way. The screaming bobby-soxer, teeny-bopper, fainting routine–not a clue. Never felt like that about anyone, well maybe perhaps sort of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Thomas Malory (I don’t talk about him much because things didn’t go well for us the first time around).
That night, I think I understood something more about the possible emotional and physical collapsibility over a rocker. Elvis at 20 feet tall with that hair and that voice, those hips, those 50s hep cat clothes. He’s a rat in the film, but when he’s upset that his dogs might have been injured… I was sunk.
The bizarro thing about it is that I really think I enjoyed seeing the film. I didn’t suspend my disbelief so much as allow myself to watch the film alongside a crowd vibrating with the energy of seeing Elvis live again, for just a few minutes, as he was at one time, non-drugged, non-flabby, not in a dragon-sequined jumpsuit with a cape and his signature, horrific sunglasses. He was young and scrappy and the underdog. He voice pure, his movements lithe.
There is, of course, a happy ending in which all is forgiven over his ratfink behavior, and we know all will be fine again.
Not. But still I didn’t think that until the next day. That night, I was uplifted a bit because of the hokum, the fun I had, the enjoyment I found and wasn’t expecting.
Elvis is alive and lives in the hearts of 400 women in Montgomery, AL. 401. Right now he’s singing and dancing in their dreams, still and always.
And I was there as a witness, and a part of it really, on my way to understanding something I didn’t know much of before: devotion.
I think I’d like to teach an Elvis class, or a musical icon class, for an argument-based composition 2 course. Think what that might be like? It might be like a little bit of rock ‘n roll heaven.