When did Elvis Presley’s decline start?
From the cradle. I’m no Elvis scholar (I’ve listened to dozens of his albums and read only the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s praised Presley bio), but I suspect that’s the answer. Col. Tom Parker, his manager, was not the cause. (Parker was a symptom.) Like so many in the uncharted waters of post-WWII pop, Elvis was too trusting. The hillbilly cat who shocked the world in 1954—who oozed charisma, nerve, and talent—was the same guy Parker snowed. I believe his downfall—the tragic arc of his career—was fated. Elvis’s decline was in the stars; his doom was inextricable from his success, as sure as he was born. Tomorrow, I could have a different opinion.
So here we are, in 2022 (almost 2023), and Paramount Pictures has just released Blue Hawaii (1961; dir. Norman Taurog), Elvis’s eighth movie, on 4K Ultra HD.
I’ll state upfront—until now, I never watched an Elvis movie in full (I don’t count any of the concert movies or documentaries). And their abysmal rep precedes them. Most of the true believers I know confess: These movies are total crap. To these folks, the movies are Exhibit A in ‘How Elvis Lost His Way.’ Films that—after he got out of the army, right until he revivified his name via the ‘68 Comeback Special—make up a musical and spiritual vacuum at the heart of the man’s life and career. A cesspool of stillborn meaninglessness. Each movie, they say, is a sub-trifle. Piddling junk that no one in their right mind would esteem in an ironic, hot-piss-take way.
Well… Can we like just how bad they are? You might be surprised.
Blue Hawaii is, without a doubt, a travesty. I entered the viewing of the casket with an open mind. With expectations lower than low. With the mindset that it’s a silly vehicle for Elvis to look cool and sing.
The embalming looks good—in Hawaii. Shot by Charles Lang (the cinematographer for Marlon Brando’s much-maligned western, One-Eyed Jacks, a personal fave), the movie makes Hawaii resplendent. Sure, I could’ve gotten the same fix Googling ’60s postcards of Kauai and Waikiki—but Blue Hawaii is a stunning travelogue. If the movie’s only asset is the kitschy way it advertises the paradise of the Pacific—with Elvis flopping around, often scantily clad (with camel balls) and clutching Mai Tais (a.k.a. tummy-warmers)—in lush Technicolor, well. At least it has that.
Oh, the story: Everyone meet Chad (Elvis), an ex-G.I. and heir to a Hawaiian pineapple fortune. His fam (Angela Lansbury plays his irritating, overbearing mom, a shrill Southern hag) wants him to stay in the family business. Chad’s got other ideas, though. Working as a tour guide at his girlfriend Maile’s (Joan Blackman) travel agency, he bops between her and the other girls! girls! girls! who land in his net. Eventually, Chad stops spinning his wheels and dedicates his life (and heart) to Maile. (Good job, Chad!)
As the threadbare plot inches forward, without a shred of suspense or interest generated, Elvis often breaks out in song. Some songs are decent—like when he sings “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to Maile’s grandmother, or when he “lets loose” with “Slicin’ Sand,” a sand-throwing ditty (and the only moment in which the hillbilly cat peeks). None of the other canned tunes are worth a shit. Fake-tanned, a tad paunchy, and (as always in this period) easy on the eyes, Elvis sleepwalks. Get back. Get back. Get back to where you once belonged.
From ‘60 to ‘68, the King phoned it in. The gospel albums he recorded in this span are good, as are a select few of the songs he recorded for the movies (“Tomorrow is a Long Time,” a Bob Dylan cover from Spinout, and “Big Boss Man” from Clambake). In my book, Elvis-as-singer is near-unimpeachable. He was an ace interpreter for other people’s songs. On the evidence of Blue Hawaii, though, he was practically dead in this era, marching through a soul-destroying movie contract and recording mostly lame music. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was uninspired to do much of anything (beyond chasing tail, eating cheeseburgers, fuming at The Beatles, and practicing martial arts), except let the Elvis assembly flow. To let all manner of Elvis product flood the market.
Last night, as Blue Hawaii unspooled in my house, I found myself both charmed and appalled by the movie’s datedness (the musical numbers are lip-synced and, sometimes, insulting pastiches of native Hawaiian music. There’s also an Asian butler named Ping-Pong, plus a strange moment that hasn’t aged well, where Elvis spanks a female upstart [I half-laughed]). Each time he sang, I groaned. The movie drags, and the story is a mere fart cloud—it just drifts. It’s bland fantasy, to be sure, crumbs of a stale sugar cookie. Everything that made Elvis such an earthshaking force is absent. Get back to where you once belonged, indeed.
OK, I know. I’m pouring on the derision. But Blue Hawaii is not trying to upset or offend. It’s innocent corn, as lighthearted and trite as anything you might see on the Hallmark Channel. Which has its place. Elvis movies aren’t trying to be art. They’re not trying to be other than what they are. You’d watch the Hallmark Channel for a reason. Blue Hawaii is a chance to see a PG-rated Elvis frolic and cavort in Hawaiian climes. We can want more. We can demand different. But none of that has to matter.
Perhaps it’s this utter pleasantness—the virtual Vicodin of sunny nothingness (crushed and littered across the whole movie)—that is numbing bordering on obscene. Elvis could have been so much more. Fans testify that he had the acting potential of a James Dean, of a Southern Brando.
He was right where he belonged.
The collectible Paramount Presents 4K UHD release comes with two discs and access to a digital copy of the movie. The UHD disc has the movie itself, restored from the original 35mm negative. Images are spiffy and crisp. The Blu-ray disc, which also has the movie, has an audio commentary by historian James L. Neibaur, a high-res photo scrapbook, and a copy of the original theatrical trailer.