Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Elvis On Tour . . . At Last!

I suspect many Elvis fans are delighted with today’s eagerly-awaited announcement by Warner Home Video that it has finally scheduled the release of Elvis on Tour, the award-winning documentary that followed Elvis on a tour of the United States in 1972. The much-anticipated documentary, long OOP on VHS and laser disc, will debut on August 3 in newly-restored and remastered Blu-ray and DVD versions. Happily, WHV is issuing the film in digital format as part of its 75th birthday celebration of the King. Elvis on Tour is considered to be Presley's last film before his death in 1977, and was described by Variety in its review as “a bright, entertaining pop music documentary detailing episodes in the later professional life of Elvis Presley . . . .” Written and directed by Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge, Sam Peckinpah fans should note that the film's cinematographer was Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch). Songs include “Proud Mary,” “Burning Love,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “Can't Help Falling in Love with You,” “Love Me Tender,” “All Shook Up,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” among others. Warner has also indicated that Martin Scorsese is participating the creation of one of the disc's supplements. According the WHV press release, the highlights of the BD and DVD versions are as follows:

  • Remastered in High Definition with 16 x 9 2.40 letterboxed image, as seen in the theatrical release.
  • Blu-ray audio will be DTS-HD Master Audio (5.1 Surround); DVD audio will be Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround.
  • Packaged as a Blu-ray book filled with Elvis photos, quotes, trivia, a tour itinerary, set lists, costumes, and background information about the filming techniques used.
  • 25 musical numbers spotlight Elvis Presley’s talent, range and showmanship in captivating on-stage performances and intimate backstage rehearsals with his band.
  • Contains Elvis’ first performance of “Burning Love,” which was so new, Elvis referred to the lyric sheet during his performance.
  • Elvis’ Ed Sullivan Show performance is included, in which the charm, personality and musical ability that made him an icon is so evident.
  • Montage sequences (supervised by Martin Scorsese) showcasing Elvis’ early career and movies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rock Pile

As a consequence of writing my previous blog entry on The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) a couple of days ago, I’ve been preoccupied by various issues raised by the so-called “rock ‘n’ roll film,” hardly the most promising of film genres upon which to base theoretical arguments. In my previous post, I argued that it’s a stretch to view The T.A.M.I. Show as anything but a long, American Bandstand-like episode put on film (it was actually filmed on video and then transferred to film), and that aesthetically speaking it shares more with the TV variety show than the rock documentary pioneered by D. A. Pennebaker and others with films such as Monterey Pop (1968). I observed that what we typically refer to as the “rock documentary” is defined as much by the technology used to record the event as it is by its cinéma vérité style, but I think now this observation is incorrect, for the style is actually dictated by the technology, not the other way around. In the same way the heavy, ponderous video cameras demanded the studio-bound setting used for the filming of The T.A.M.I. Show, the lightweight, portable hand-held 16mm cameras used by Pennebaker and crew to record Monterey Pop encouraged the freewheeling approach to the rock concert typical of documentaries in general. The time restriction of the film roll in each camera required the use of multiple cameras, because the amount of film contained in an individual camera could not record the complete performance of an individual musician or band. The use of low angles and extreme close-ups was enabled because the lightweight camera allowed the camera operator to move easily about the stage, crouching down when necessary for the proper angle. In the same way early Hollywood musicals often employed the features of a Broadway theatrical revue, early rock ‘n’ roll movies employed the jukebox formula used in youth-oriented television programs such as American Bandstand. The other night while watching the rock film featuring Alan Freed, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956)—I’d never seen it before—I was struck by the way the narrative (as utterly banal and inconsequential as it is) was interrupted (stopped) in order for the Tuesday Weld character to sit down and watch TV, on which were appearing several rock acts introduced by DJ Alan Freed. I wonder if it is for this reason so many of the early rock films have dated badly, not only because of the déclassé musical forms (e.g., doo-wop) featured in them, but the unimaginative aesthetics that governed their production. In the case of Rock, Rock, Rock, the banal, unambitious narrative, concerning the teenage Tuesday Weld character’s desire to earn enough money to buy a dress for a school dance, is also another reason these early films hold so little interest except of a historical nature. Even the power of nostalgia, which typically overvaluates the past, can scarcely redeem a film such as this one.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The T.A.M.I. Show

I finally managed to sit down and watch Shout! Factory’s DVD issue of The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, 112m 25s), which received a heavily-hyped release earlier this month. Considered a legendary rock ‘n’ roll concert film, this is the movie’s first release on DVD, and in fact the film’s first issue on home video ever, although parts of the film were cut together with its follow-up, 1966’s The Big T.N.T. Show, for a VHS issue in 1984 titled That Was Rock. The back cover blurb on the DVD says The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed “just eight months after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show”—true, but also misleading, because more significantly, it was filmed slightly over two months after the U. S. release of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (released on 11 August 1964), still doing great boffo when The T.A.M.I. Show (an acronym for “Teenage Awards Music International”) was being filmed in late October at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Moreover, considering the kind of libidinal excitement The Beatles could generate during a live performance, a “live concert” film was ripe for exploitation. Given the road-to-discovery-and-fame plots of previous films featuring rock stars, such as Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), they could only feature two or three acts: the latter movie, for instance, had featured Bill Haley and His Comets, Little Richard, and a couple of lesser-known acts, The Treniers and Dave Appell and the Applejacks. In contrast, The T.A.M.I. Show featured twelve different acts, including Lesley Gore, The Rolling Stones, James Brown and The Famous Flames, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, and “British Invasion” acts such as Gerry and the Pacemakers—the latter given an inordinate amount of screen time it seems to me, as was Lesley Gore, but then she was, at least, in terms of the number of hits, the biggest star attraction at the time the film was made.

Filmed in “Electronovision,” the early 60s equivalent of today’s high definition video, the videotape was then transferred to 35mm film. Hence, as David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed suggest in Rock on Film (1982), “there is a case to be made for taking exception to dubbing The T.A.M.I. Show a movie at all. It looks and acts just a [black & white] television special, replete with moderne simplistic décor, chiaroscuro lighting, and a troupe of go-go dancers wildly frugging away on and around background scaffolding a la TV’s Shindig” (77). They are right: given the large, heavy, clunky, and studio-bound cameras used to record the event, The T.A.M.I. Show easily could have been filmed in a television studio (the large, 3,000-member audience would have been lost as a consequence, however). Moreover, according to Don Waller in his interesting and valuable liner notes included in the booklet accompanying the DVD, the featured performers, including dancers, spent two days rehearsing prior to the actual filming. Filmed over two nights, on October 28 and 29, 1964, according to Waller “the footage that makes up [the 112 minutes of] The T.A.M.I. Show was taken exclusively from the second night’s concert, which took five hours to film” (12). Thus for those expecting The T.A.M.I. Show to have the immediacy and spontaneity of the rock documentaries made after, it does not—the Monterey International Pop Festival, held June 1967, filmed by D. A. Pennebaker using lightweight, portable 16mm color cameras equipped to record synchronized sound, was still over two years away. What we typically refer to as the “rock documentary” is defined as much by the technology used to record it as it is by its free-wheeling cinéma vérité style, not usually by the TV variety show aesthetic that governed The T.A.M.I. Show.

Which isn’t to say The T.A.M.I. Show is without charm. Considered in historical terms, and as something other than a nostalgic “time capsule” as it is currently being pitched by Public Television fund-raising campaigns using the DVD as a reward to contributors, the film reveals not only a change in American social consciousness but also the discovery of an emerging, substantial economic market. For one thing, the African American performers featured in the film (primarily from Motown; Memphis’s Stax/Volt goes unrepresented until Monterey Pop, primarily in the figure of Otis Redding) were among the true beneficiaries of Civil Rights Era America. The film’s producers seemed to have intuited the white fascination with blackness, and hence five, or almost half, of the featured acts were black. As a consequence of his justly historic performance in The T.A.M.I. Show, James Brown, for instance, would appear in AIP’s Ski Party, released a few months later, in the summer of 1965. (White envy of blackness would take the form of the Rolling Stones’ reluctance to follow James Brown, although they acquitted themselves pretty well by their performance, perhaps because they did have to follow Brown, and so tried a little harder.) The aforementioned Ehrenstein and Reed, in Rock on Film, believe the most important thing The T.A.M.I. Show revealed was that “rock as mere music (and live performance as just a show) is about to change drastically” (77). In other words, the film shows rock music on the verge of redefining itself: no longer was it to be a consequence of cold calculation and commerce, but also changing social consciousness. For there’s a vast gulf between D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) and The T.A.M.I. Show, a consequence of something other than aesthetics.