"You can do worse"
Reviewed by likethebike
"Speedway" is one of the more problematic Elvis films to review because in some ways it demonstrates the reasons why Elvis' movies are not great musicals in the grand Hollywood tradition at the same time as displaying the unique charm of the genre known as the "Elvis movie".
When people talk about Elvis Movies, "Speedway" is exactly the type of movie they are talking about. Elvis is placed in some glamorous profession, sings some songs, makes out, gets in fights and indulges in light comedic adventures. All the while he is surrounded by some generally top quality character actors and lots of pretty girls.
By the time "Speedway", the last of these movies, came out in 1968 the formula almost worked on its own. And as we can see from this movie, the genre is not without charm if all of the various elements work (which they do not in some other movies like "Clambake" and "Paradise Hawaiian Style").
As an hour and half of escapism, you can do worse than "Speedway". The plot is wafer thin but is really not the point here. For those of you pikers who haven't seen it though here goes: Elvis is a hotshot young stock car racer with a generous heart who splits everything he has with his boyhood friend and manager the slippery but lovable Kenny Donford (Bill Bixby). Anyway, Kenny cooks the books on Steve's taxes getting them in dutch with the IRS. Nancy Sinatra, is the love interest, an IRS agent assigned to make sure the pair pay their taxes. The last half hour of the plot where the group comes together to fix Elvis' broken engine in his stock car is too close to "Viva Las Vegas" for the taste of some fans and has hurt the movie's reputation.
But the charm of the movie is in the details not the plot. Many of the elements of the Elvis formula are here and make this movie work as a pleasant time waster.
The supporting cast is a big part of this. Gale Gordon, Bill Bixby and the man of 1000 roles William Schallert are familiar faces to anyone with even passing knowledge of early TV. TV junkies will also recognize character mainstays Carl Ballantine and Burt Mustin as well. They help give the film a comfortable lived in feel. It's like watching an episode of a favorite 60s guilty pleasure sitcom like "F-Troop" but with the ultra cool touch of Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra in guest roles. Gordon, Schallert and Bixby all do what they do well and add to the light comic vibe.
Elvis himself does not do too badly here. In some scenes, he looks kind of tired but his reactions are good and he has some good comic moments. He has a wonderful rapport with Bixby and the scene where they are dressed down by Gordon for the sloppy tax return is very funny.
[IMGr]http://www.tcb-world.com/images/reviews/speedway-01.jpg[/IMGr]Nancy Sinatra is more problematic. She is wooden but her iconic status means more than her performance. She exists in this land as Nancy Sinata coming face to face with Elvis Presley. And just like King Kong meeting Godzilla that kind of iconic clash means a lot in a genre movie. Her duet with Elvis "There Ain't Nothing Like a Song" works in that way.
There are also some genuinely funny moments like the above mentioned scene and when Schallert wakes up in Elvis' stock car in the middle of a race. There's not an overload of these mild laughs but they help up the fun factor.
Another element of the movie that works is the visual style; not Norman Taurog's straight line direction but the set design. The clubs where Elvis hangs out are a wonderful wacked out vision of 60s Go Go culture. The "Hang Out" is a 13 year-old's wet dream with its imitation car booths, racing paraphenalia and dancing girls.
This also part of the movie's appeal. Elvis and Kenny, basically arrested adolescents, live in adolescent dream world. They're rich, on their own, working glamorous and exciting jobs in the day, living in a trailer filled with all sorts of cool gadgets and chase girls and party every night. You can see why this movie had such an effect on the young Quentin Tarantino.
The Elvis movie though generally rises and falls on the songs and "Speedway" has some pretty decent music. The title track is cliche'd although Elvis sings it well; the same could be said for the light near Bossa Nova ballad "Who Are You? Who Am I?" The only real dog is "He's Your Uncle Not Your Dad" the kind of absolutely goofy number that was mandatory in Elvis' '60s musicals.
[IMGl]http://www.tcb-world.com/images/reviews/speedway-02.jpg[/IMGl]There are two highlights: "Let Yourself Go" and "Your Time Hasn't Come Yet Baby". The two songs couldn't be more different.
"Let Yourself Go" seems out of place in what for all intents and purposes is a family movie. As sung by Elvis, it's an invitation to orgy.
Surprisingly, the presentation of the number in the movie captures a little of this. Despite the static staging of Taurog (who was reportedly legally blind when they made this movie), the ending of the song with everyone (except oddly enough Sinatra) standing up on the cars dancing in a frenzy has a kind of demented passion. It's as if in response to Elvis' wild exhortation to "let yourself go" everyone's ego has vanished giving way to their bodily impulses. It's a very subversive moment.
"Your Time Hasn't Come Yet Baby" doesn't scale those heights musically or visually. An understated but lilting country number, it's not art but it's certainly more than pleasant. (The overdubbed strings in the movie dampen some of the number's natural rootsiness.)The lyrics are from the jailbait rejection school that was quite popular at the time like "Go Away Little Girl", "Young Girl", "Come Back When You Grow Up" etc., absent the usual lust.
This is fitting since Elvis sings it to a child in the movie. Many of Elvis' movies, pair him off with kids with often cloying results. Although, Elvis is a little stiff when he and the child embrace, the formula works here very nicely. Elvis' graceful phrasing and the genuine pleasure Bixby and Elvis have with the children in the scene and the naturalistic "dancing" of the children make this one of the gentlest scenes in any Elvis movie. It's all understatement. Elvis doesn't have to be a magic pied piper or engage in elaborate play. The children express their love for Elvis simply by giving his some flowers and that's enough.
This all being said it's easy to see why "Speedway" is listed by some critics as being among Elvis' worst. Except for the above mentioned numbers, the choreography is flat. Basically, people either shake, walk around in rhythm or clap their hands. Taurog does nothing with the widescreen format in the numbers and there is no composition in most of the musical numbers.
[IMGr]http://www.tcb-world.com/images/reviews/speedway-14.jpg[/IMGr]Taurog really does nothing to aid the presentation of the movie and it has an episodic static feel because of that. He does handle the race sequences nicely.
There is no character development in the script. All the characters are types and all their personality comes from the actors and our knowledge of them and of their work. The plot as I mentioned before has its problems. The funny moments are spread out and more chuckles than belly laughs.
It's also not the smartest script you'll ever see. The dumbest moment is probably the Hang Out's rule that the patrons have to perform. This works out great if Elvis and Nancy Sinatra hang at the club but would result in an empty club if Joe Average had to sing for his supper.
Finally, a great musical should have more than one great and one good song. While the majority of the soundtrack is listenable it is also forgettable.
The key to enjoying the movie though is appreciating it for what it is. While it's not a great musical or a challenge to the massive talents of Elvis Presley, it is an enjoyable light genre entertainment.
The DVD of the movie by the way is terrific. There are no extras of course except for an Elvis trailer gallery featuring this movie, "Spinout", "Double Trouble" and "The Trouble With Girls". The sound and picture are to my eyes and ears absolutely terrific. The colors are sharp and the definition in the picture is a revelation, maybe the best Elvis movie visuals so far. Watching this movie in the widescreen format in this presentation was like seeing it for the first time.
? 2004 - likethebike