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Book review: "The Elvis Movies" by James L. Neibaur

The Elvis Movies by James L. Neibaur
Rowman and Littlefield

The Elvis Movies

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Elvis Presley is one of the most significant and iconic American singers not just of the 20th century, but all time. In the 1950s he brought rock and roll to its height with songs like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Hound Dog” that were popular with teens and controversial among the older generation. Elvis is still, over thirty years after his death, the best-selling artist in music history.

Elvis also starred in a string of movies throughout the 1950s and 60s, although these are often dismissed as silly, lighthearted fluff in comparison to Elvis’s substantial music career. But the fact is—while several of these films are indeed lighthearted fluff—movies were a big part of Elvis’s career that should not be ignored. Elvis starred in 31 movies, and unlike other musicians of the time, who might just show up in a scene or two of a movie to sing a song and then disappear, Elvis was always the leading man and a pretty darn good actor too. His films were also, for the most part, extremely popular at the box office. Finally, Elvis and his movies get the credit they deserve in James L. Neibaur’s latest book, The Elvis Movies.

In The Elvis Movies, Neibaur—a film historian whose previous books focused on such subjects as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Charley Chase—offers up an in depth critical assessment of each of Elvis’s movies from 1956’s “Love Me Tender” to 1969’s “Change of Habit”, plus his concert films “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is” and “Elvis on Tour”. In addition to discussing the details of each film and the impact it had on Elvis’s career and popular culture at the time, Neibaur also tracks the evolution of Elvis’s music career and personal life, even including a chapter discussing Elvis’s time in the Army, when he was unable to produce any new music or films for two years. The book is also lavishly illustrated with posters, stills, publicity shots, and candid photos.

The great thing about The Elvis Movies, which really is the first in depth study of Elvis’s film career to date, is that Neibaur successfully proves that Elvis’s movies deserve more credit than they get. Neibaur offers up quotes from interviews with many people who worked with Elvis saying that he was never egotistical, as the press often painted him, but rather very down to earth and sincere about wanting to be a good actor. Furthermore, Neibaur closely examines scenes from each movie, pointing out Elvis’s acting prowess and his talent for both drama and comedy. While in his first film Elvis overacted a bit, by the time he got to his fourth film, “King Creole”—which is also widely considered his best film—Neibaur says “his confidence is palpable throughout the movie.”

Unfortunately, after his stint in the Army and his dramatic role in the western “Flaming Star”, Elvis found substantial dramatic roles like the ones earlier in his career hard to come by, as his agent wanted him to focus on what made the most money, which were light-hearted musical comedies that included lots of songs. But even as Elvis’s movies became more formulaic, Neibaur still has plenty of insight to offer, and his respect for Elvis as an actor and musician is apparent even when admitting a particular film is not good. He also very clearly conveys what Elvis was going through personally throughout each movie, most importantly his growing frustration with the direction his career was heading.

With The Elvis Movies, Neibaur reveals a side of Elvis Presley’s career that is often overlooked, and does so in a way that is sure to change the mind of anyone who dismisses it as unimportant in film history. This book, with its numerous interviews, behind-the-scenes info, and Neibaur’s added insight, will both inform and delight both longtime Elvis fans and those who are only just discovering his brilliance.

The Elvis Movies is available on Amazon.

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