Elvis Presley is an obvious subject for Backbeat Books' FAQ series, with his career split into two books: “Elvis Music FAQ” by Mike Eder, and “Elvis Films FAQ” by Paul Simpson. It does mean there’s some overlap, as the movie soundtracks are covered in both volumes. And as the film book is padded out with superfluous chapters like “Presley as a Fashion Icon” (a mere two and a half pages) and redundancies (surely there was no need to have separate chapters on both “Elvis and the Teen Movie” and “Elvis Films and the Beach Party Movie”), it might have been smarter to release a single volume covering both movies and music.
Eder incisively critiques the trajectory of Presley’s career. But the organization is confusing. There will be a few chapters offering a general overview of, for example, the years 1960 to 1964, interspersed with chapters on other subjects (like Presley’s EP releases), a chapter discussing all the records released from 1960 to early 1968, then chapters giving an overview of ’65 to ’68. It makes you feel as if you’re jumping backwards and forwards in time; a straightforward narrative would’ve been easier to follow.
It’s great to have a book on Presley’s film career that isn’t largely pictorial, but one wonders if this volume was rushed. There are a surprising number of typos — dropped words, misspellings — and a lack of proper fact checking (“A Hard Day’s Night” was famously called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals,” not the “King Kong”). And describing Presley’s fleeting appearance in drag in “Girl Happy” as inspired by “Some Like It Hot” comes across as a feeble attempt to link Presley’s mediocre work with a classic film (not to mention that cross-dressing has been a comedic staple since the days of Laurel and Hardy).
Simpson will occasionally come down on a movie (calling “Girls! Girls! Girls!” “so bad it’s dull”), but more often tries for a positive spin, insisting that Presley’s film career is “thoroughly misunderstood.” Actually, Simpson’s book makes clear that it never was. Presley had a lot of potential for a good career in movies, but chose to squander it, with the result that he ended up making only a handful of good films, while the rest ranged from fair to poor, and wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone who doesn’t already like Elvis Presley.
Eder also leans toward the positive spin, writing of Presley’s ‘70s work, “As sad as it is that Elvis let himself go, he was doing better work in the studio than most performers of his era.” Dubious as that claim may be (really, “most” ‘70s performers weren’t doing decent work in the studio?), it’s still something of a relief to have two books that keep the focus on Presley’s work.