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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Gospel Elvis

There’s a fine essay by Charles Wolfe, titled “Presley and the Gospel Tradition,” in the now somewhat aged but excellent book edited by Kevin Quain, The Elvis Reader (1992). A typical discussion of Elvis’s music inevitably, and certainly correctly, cites country and blues influences, but as Wolfe points out, “these sources . . . account for only a part of his music” (13). Indeed, it was primarily only the 50s in which Elvis was a rock singer. In the 1960s and 70s, Elvis would surpass his narrow classification as a rock singer and became one of the central figures of American popular music. In my own estimation, From Elvis in Memphis (1969), recorded more than a decade after his first singles for RCA in 1956, is not only one of Elvis’s greatest records, but one of the greatest records of American popular music. But it's not a rock album. Wolfe is no doubt correct when he observes that one of the reasons why the influence of white gospel music on Elvis has been unaccountably neglected is because there is so little research on the subject. He writes (this in 1992, remember):

No one has yet written a serious history of the genre, and most of the information currently available has to be drawn from original research or from various self-serving press releases and fan newspapers. Numerous gospel performers, such as the Blackwood Brothers, the Speer Family, and Jimmy Swaggert, have written “biographies,” and while these are useful to an extent, they are more often than not designed as “inspirational” reading rather than factual accounts. The very term gospel music has become confusing to the average reader; in recent years the term (which originated in white “revivalist” hymns of the 1890s) has been appropriated by scholars to describe black religious singing, though it is still generally used by the public (and the musicians) to refer to white singing. (14)

Elvis’s discography, of course, contains some excellent gospel records, even if those records were never among his biggest sellers. The LP, His Hand in Mine (1960), was the follow-up to the Peace in the Valley EP (1957). How Great Thou Art (1967) appeared a few years later, and the gospel album that won Elvis a second Grammy, He Touched Me, appeared in 1972. Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis) observes that Gladys Presley’s favorite quartet was the Blackwood Brothers; according to Wolfe, the Blackwood Brothers were “the most highly visible and exciting musical group in the Memphis area” before and after Elvis moved to that city (16). Elvis was a fan of the Blackwoods in the years prior to his own rise to fame; he would ask the Blackwood Brothers to sing at his mother’s funeral in 1958. Moreover, during the twenty-one years that Elvis was a national figure, he used three different gospel groups as back-up singers: the Jordanaires (1956-67), who were providing back-up vocals for him when he sang “Peace in the Valley” during his 6 January 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; the Imperials (1969-71)—they appeared in 1970’s That’s the Way It Is and backed him on 72’s He Touched Me; and J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet (1972-77)—Elvis had known J. D. Sumner since he’d joined the Blackwood Brothers after the disastrous plane crash that killed the group’s original bass singer in late June 1954.

Perhaps the more important issue regarding Elvis and gospel music, though, is to identify the precise nature of the genre’s influence. Charles Wolfe argues that the influence “was not in the content of his songs,” but rather “in Presley’s singing style and performing style” (25). I’ve blogged previously about the influence of Dean Martin on Elvis’s vocal style, but Wolfe, citing Jerry Hopkins’ Elvis: A Biography, argues for recognition of the important influence of Jake Hess of the Statesmen Quartet. Hopkins cites Johnny Rivers, who revealingly said, “If you’ll listen to some of their [the Statesmen Quartet’s] recordings, you’ll hear some of that style that is now Elvis Presley’s style, especially in his ballad singing style. He was playing some of their records one day and he said, ‘Now you know where I got my style from. Caught—a hundred million records too late.’ It was really funny. I think he idolized Jake. Jake and the Statesmen and the Blackwoods” (qtd. in Wolfe 26).

I’m not entirely happy with the following juxtapositions, but this video, identified as being from a 1950s airing of the Nabisco TV show, contains a lively performance by the Statesmen (with Jake Hess in the lead), singing “Move That Mountain,” a song Elvis would have certainly liked. This second video is Elvis singing “By And By,” a song in the same vein. In the years since Wolfe published his article, more emphasis has been placed on Elvis’s gospel recordings, such as the He Touched Me set, available here. In any case, I strongly recommend Charles Wolfe's fine article to anyone interested in this dimension of Elvis’s music.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Arbor Day

In Douglas Sirk’s grand melodrama Written on the Wind (1956), the river represents a sort of lost innocence, a past happiness (however illusory). When in the film the river is finally shown, the actual location associated with this long lost innocence is at the base of a giant old tree (a sycamore?) perched along the bank of the river. The sanctity of the place by the river is like that of a sacred grove. Trees have figured prominently in world mythology, largely figuratively, as in the image of the “tree of life,” for instance, or as a metaphor for family relationships, as in “family tree.” Forbidden fruit is associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but in The Hanging Tree (1959), the titular tree is a multivalent symbol, an emblem of death (crucifixion) as well as life. The lyrics to Marty Robbins’ song, “The Hanging Tree” makes this linkage explicit: the tree of death becomes the tree of life, associated with the moment in the story when the hero is saved by the power of love. Cast in structuralist terms, the hanging tree is an excessive signifier. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks argues the melodramatic form creates an asymmetrical relationship between the signifier and the signified, specifically, a signified in excess of the signifier. This asymmetry “in turn produces an excessive signifier, making large and insubstantial claims on meaning.” Songwriters love trees because their conventional symbolism allows the songwriter to invoke a certain emotion or value—the oak with steadfast endurance, the (weeping) willow with melancholy, the palm tree with the erotic pleasures of paradise, and so on. The yew tree represents the mourning for a lost loved one, and is associated with death. Hence the yew tree is often found near churches and cemeteries as a reminder to the bereaved of the spirit’s ultimate victory over death. Likewise, in the sublime “Bristlecone Pine,” the tree (several thousand years old) is an image of eternal life. The reference to the sycamore tree in “Mama” Cass Elliott’s “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” (first recorded by Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra in 1931) is not entirely capricious given that the song is a love song. Given their longevity, there is a long tradition of sycamore trees being planted by the door of the homes of newlyweds. My remarks are intended only to suggest the richness of the subject of the mythology of trees, and are therefore hardly definitive. What follows is a short playlist of songs with arboreal references.

Songs From The Wood:
The Ames Brothers – Tammy
The Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Joan Armatrading – Willow
The Band – Whispering Pines
The Beach Boys – California Girls
The Beatles – Matchbox
The Brothers Four – Yellow Bird
Mama Cass Elliott – Dream A Little Dream Of Me
James Darren – Under the Yum Yum Tree
Dawn with Tony Orlando – Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree
Dino Fitzgerald – Apple on a Cherry Tree
Ella Fitzgerald – St. Louis Blues (Fitzgerald’s version only)
Fleetwood Mac – Bare Trees
Dick Gaughan – The Yew Tree
Johnny Horton – Whispering Pines
Alan Jackson – Tall, Tall Trees
Jethro Tull – Songs From the Wood
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Lynyrd Skynyrd – That Smell
Peter, Paul and Mary – Lemon Tree
The Platters – Trees
Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
Marty Robbins – The Hanging Tree
Rush – The Trees
Jim Salestrom – Bristlecone Pine
Frank Sinatra – Willow Weep For Me
The Steve Miller Band – The Joker
U2 – One Tree Hill
Stevie Wonder – Tree

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Invisible Man: Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

When I heard the wholly unexpected news yesterday of Alex Chilton’s death at age 59, I immediately thought of a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald (or rather the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway) says about the character Tom Buchanan, who’d been a star football player at Yale, that he is “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anticlimax.” Such was Chilton’s peculiar fate, to have achieved his greatest success very early on in his life, making everything after that brief time smack of anticlimax. As has been reiterated in the many obituaries available on the web, “The Letter” was a #1 hit by the Box Tops when he was just sixteen years old. But fame behaves rather like the moon—it’s either waxing or waning, so by the time he was nineteen, the Box Tops, or rather a later incarnation of it, had disbanded. At age twenty, in 1971, he formed Big Star (pictured; Chilton is standing), and at age twenty-one he recorded with the band #1 Record, perhaps the group’s best album, released in 1972. The band’s subsequent record, Radio City, was also neglected, and a later one went unreleased for many years. Thus, rather like the Velvet Underground, Big Star’s reputation emerged long after the band itself no longer existed, when its records started showing up in the used record bins, and after the first two albums were reissued. Big Star’s commercial failure was crucial in laying the groundwork for its later influence, as it is based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground and Nico album—that initial neglect is a sign of greatness. Chilton himself seemed aware of this myth, saying in later years that he thought the band’s music was overestimated. The L. A. Times obituary quotes him as saying:

“There are only three or four of the tunes, like ‘In the Street’ and ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me,’ that still work for me,” Chilton said in 1995. “I think in general Big Star is overrated.”

Of course, one never asks the artist what he or she thinks of a particular work, as the artist is normally always wrong. I think Adam Duritz of Counting Crows said it best, observing of Big Star, “They sing about all those dreams that you had when you were young that got broken....It was very confused and vulnerable music, and it was great.” Duritz’ point is an important one: the things that make the music valuable to later listeners need not be understood by the artist at the time the music was made. Consider the history of Punk Rock. The term Punk used to describe the culture around a type of rock music had no currency until 1975. But immediately after the word “punk” gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started piecing together a history, memorializing certain figures who came before them and ascribing to those figures their own desires, which these chosen predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some punks memorialized the MC5, others The Stooges, and still others the Velvet Underground. The new narratives that grew up around punk music invented predecessors who sacrificed for a future they could not have fully understood. Hence Rolling Stone’s proclamation, quoted in the L. A. Times obituary, stating “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star,” is true insofar as Big Star is being memorialized as an influence in the construction of a particular explanatory narrative, but misleading insofar as the members of Big Star could have in any way predicted, or even imagined, their influence on later generations. Chilton’s claim that Big Star is “overrated” should not, therefore, be understood as false modesty: he’s saying, in so many words, he just doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. I take his remark to be an honest admission. For after all, he might have said, Big Star was hardly the Beatles, whose annus mirabilis was 1964, the year Chilton was a mere thirteen years old. (Where is Elvis in all this, the most famous white singer associated with Memphis then as now?) Many young men in America that year were inspired to form a band and play rock music, and it would seem that Alex Chilton was one of them, although a chance encounter with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn around 1970 also seems to have been a critical moment in his musical career. In retrospect one wonders whether the music played by Big Star was the kind of music he wanted to play all along, making the years with the Box Tops a career anomaly. Although Americans love to champion individuality and the individual artist, Alex Chilton’s biggest success, such as it was, came out of the creative interaction possible only within a band, not his work as a solo artist. For in Big Star, as The Replacements song, “Alex Chilton,” puts it, Chilton became an “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.”