"Electric and full of potential"
reviewed by likethebike
"Viva Las Vegas" is not only Elvis Presley's best musical but it is the one Elvis musical where all of the elements to come together to create one of the cinema's most entertaining exercises in the genre. This movie more than anything proves that was wrong with Elvis' movies had nothing to do with the musical format or even pedestrian scripts. In "Viva Las Vegas" everything but the script works to almost perfection and the result is an exhilarating slice of entertainment. Had all of Elvis' films been like this one, his movie career would be remembered fondly today.
The plot for "Viva Las Vegas" is pretty flimsy. Elvis is Lucky Jackson- for the first time- a race car driver who comes to Las Vegas for the Grand Prix road race. There he meets a sexy swim instructor- Rusty Martin- played by the voluptuous Ann Margret. She pushes him in a pool and he loses his money and is forced to work at her hotel. Elvis' newfound poverty (movie women???) makes him appealing to A/M. They fall in love and break up and make up for the rest of the movie until Elvis can win the big race. That's about it.
From such a pedestrian premise, Elvis and company churn out a first rate musical.
One of Elvis' greatest problems as an actor and a movie star was that movies are such a collaborative art and for whatever reasons Elvis was often coupled with collaborators beneath his massive talent. That's not the case here.
Many critics have said that A/M is what separates "Viva Las Vegas" from the rest of Elvis' movies. And certainly she is filled with vitality here. Her acting chops in some of the emotional scenes are aren't yet up to snuff but her personality and dancing are riveting. Plus, she has an uncommon rapport and chemistry with Elvis. When they are singing "C'mon Everybody" they appear to be anticipating each other moves almost reading each's other mind. They are a great match.
But if A/M were all that this movie had going for it, it would not be the classic it is today. Many, many critics ignore the fact that Director George Sidney knew his way around a musical and his presence helps this movie extraordinarily. Perhaps this point is ignored because admitting it would mean also admitting that Elvis' failure on film was less a lack of talent than a lack of good directors.
The music is staged in "Viva Las Vegas" with more expertise and excitement than any other Elvis movie. It's like night and day.
Look at the scene where Elvis sings "What'd I Say". The brilliantly choreographed scene is breathless with excitement as Sidney's direction mirrors the frenzy of the song. Sidney plays off the call and response of the song's rhythm flashing on Elvis and then A/M and then the crowd. It's an intoxicating trick designed to make you feel that you are there. Sidney's master stroke comes at the "ooh ahh" part. With each "ooh and ahh" Sidney goes into all rotating close ups Elvis/A/M, Elvis/A/M, Elvis/A/M. Then he pulls the camera back and the action explodes with all the dancers going wild into semi-freestyle dancing with Elvis and A/M in the middle.
It is almost a dance/musical representation of the sex act. Hal Wallis, who was too busy bit*ching about Elvis' hair, should have locked Norman Taurog in a room with this clip until he learned something. A director can underscore the musical action on the screen.
Choreographer David Winters also deserves some credit here. This scene is marvelously choreographed. Unlike the scenes in other Elvis movies where the dancing seems random, there is actual choreography. Every dancer is doing something and all their movements are keyed off of the movements of Elvis and Ann Margret. That Winters later worked on "Girl Happy" without especial distinction shows that maybe Sidney's influence is the real key but the guy did a good job.
A later Sidney/Elvis tour de force doesn't even need choreography. "I Need Someone to Lean On" is one of the most expressive scenes you'll ever see in a movie musical. The song, a saloon ballad in the Sinatra tradition, is played at first as an interior monologue in Elvis' head as Elvis walks through a half-empty casino. In the half-lit room we see Elvis walk alone past lovers embracing at the bar and on every post. Elvis stops in the middle of the casino and the camera goes dark. And then a spotlight flashes down and Elvis starts to sing out loud. Elvis the actor is in full bloom as his face and vocalization capture all the ache of the song. The effect he and Sidney achieve is a moment of total despair. Ironically, when the light flashes on Elvis is at his darkest moment. The reason he sings is because he can't hold it in any longer. Later they continue the spell as Elvis is too broken to go on and needs to sit down. It's a startling moment. Were it a music video, it would rank with the greatest videos of all-time.
This type of stuff is what is missing in your standard Elvis movie. But, it is not all this missing. All of Sidney's magic would have went to waste if Elvis had to sing stuff like "Do the Clam"
For once in "Viva Las Vegas" Elvis gets a full slate of good material. True there's some filler like "The Yellow Rose Of Texas" and "Santa Lucia" but every other song is at least above average. Many are better than that. "C'mon Everybody"- the one movie version better than the studio version- is a terrific dance number. Fueled by Hal Blaines' rolling drum attack, Elvis' "What'd I Say" is the best version ever of that war horse except for Ray Charles' untoppable original. I've already expressed my passion for Pomus and Shuman's wonderful late night ballad "I Need Somone to Lean On".
The title track puts all of those songs to shame. One of the relatively few Elvis movie songs that could legitimately be called a masterpiece. A mixture of swing, show tune and rock it is a one of a kind. The lyrics may very well be the best ever written by Doc Pomus. They capture all of the amoral glory, dread and excitement of sin city. Elvis captures it all beautifully drawing the end of each verse to heighten the excitement and hitting a climactic ending. Predictably, Sidney's presentation does justice to the music.
All this would mean nothing of course, without Elvis' full enagement and Sidney gets it. He essentially plays himself but he is electric and full of potential. Though Wallis said he was fat, he looks great to me and his hair looks natural, actually blowing slightly in the wind something it does not do in Wallis' "Roustabout". He sings with verve and delivers his dialogue with relish.
The one area where "Viva Las Vegas" falls short of the classic musical tradition is in the fact that Rusty Martin and Lucky Jackson don't have any depth in the script. They don't have the weight or off-screen lives of some of the great musical characters like Sky Masterson and Sister Sarah from "Guys and Dolls". If anyone but Elvis and A/M were playing the parts they would be cyphers. This robs the movie of emotional weight.
The emotional power of the film is also limited by the fact that so much time is spent on Lucky's big race but we really don't understand why this race is special in Lucky's career or life. He and A/M could certainly get together without it.
Not that Sally Benson's script is all bad. There is some great sexy dialogue. I'm especially thinking of Elvis' savoring A/M after she suggests they go dancing and Elvis adds "or something".
Also, the scene where Elvis and Rusty get to know each other before Elvis sings "Today Tomorrow and Forever" is very nice. Though their characters aren't real their love affair is.
These are all minor quibbles though in a movie that does so much right.
? 2004 - likethebike