Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The Commitments,’ on Elvis)

Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. (played by Robert Arkins): “Elvis is not soul.”

Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. (played by Colm Meaney): [defensively] “Elvis is God!”

Jimmy Jr.: “I never pictured God with a fat gut and corset singing ‘My Way’ at Caesar's Palace.”—The Commitments (1991), screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle, adapted from Doyle’s novel, directed by Alan Parker

The Commitments is, at least in my opinion, the funniest movie ever made about rock ‘n’ roll. Even in the film’s most incongruous, hilarious line—Jimmy Jr.’s exhortation to his fellow (white) Irish rockers, “Say it loud—I’m black and I’m proud”—it touches on how the genre exemplified by a country boy from the Deep South crossed a musical color line.

In Indianapolis, on this date in 1977, the man that Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. identified as God—and that others, only slightly less reverently, termed “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”—played his last concert. Unfortunately, I have to admit, with the greatest reluctance, that by this point Elvis Presley was closer to the hideous image summoned by Jimmy Jr. His last song was, in fact, "My Way."

In August 1977, less than two months after the Indianapolis concert, Elvis--by this time, weighing more than 300 pounds--was found dead in his bathroom in his mansion, Graceland. In time, the public would learn just how much drugs had become a part of his daily existence.

The figure burlesqued by Jimmy Jr. would shortly become a worldwide symbol not just of the corruption of the body, but also of the corruption of the American Dream—a man who had achieved everything he could desire, only to expire in a gaudy mansion under the sorriest of circumstances.

Jimmy Sr. is having none of it. Neither did the American people two decades ago, when, given the choice by the U.S. Postal Service if they preferred the “young” or the “old” Elvis, chose the former.

John Lennon once said of the performer he got to meet, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” I don’t think he meant it literally any more than Ernest Hemingway believed literally what he wrote about Huckleberry Finn: “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." These two were simply testifying to the catalytic influences of two forebears.

The essence of Elvis is of the artist live. I wish there was more of him on YouTube in his early days rather than from the Seventies, but there’s a reasonable approximation: the songs from his 1968 “Comeback Special.”

Check out, for instance, the black leather-clad Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” from that landmark TV appearance: funny, loose, spontaneous, sexy. If you want to see someone where the musical DNA of The King runs the strongest, try Bruce Springsteen, especially in this performance of “Fire” fromYouTube. In inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, The Boss observed that Dylan "freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body." 

In "Fire," you can see the results of liberation of the body on an exultant audience.

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