Before I dive into my review of ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ I should point out that I’m not of the generation that grew up idolizing Elvis Presley – in fact, he died before I was even born. As such, I've always had a hard time wrapping my head around his continued stardom and god-like status among so many fans. Looking at his legacy outside of its historical context, his music seems clichéd and his films seem to be tired exercises in self-promotion. Hate me yet, Elvis fans? Fear not, I understand that although Presley's work may seem formulaic today, it’s only because he had a substantial hand in shaping the formula. I've also come to understand that his thirty-three films were an inevitable extension of his popularity, and that it isn’t entirely fair to judge them as standalone works.
In 1957 (just a year after 60 million people tuned in to watch his first Ed Sullivan appearance), Elvis starred in his third film -- a thinly-veiled biographical parable called 'Jailhouse Rock,' which allowed the singer to further develop his edgy rock-n-roll persona for moviegoers the world over. The story sees Presley step into the role of Vince Everett, a young man with good intentions who lands himself in prison after accidentally killing an opponent in a bar fight. During the course of his sentence, he meets a musician named Hunk (Mickey Shaughnessy) who teaches him to play guitar. Upon his release, Vince finds work singing in bars before he meets a talent scout named Peggy (Judy Tyler) who makes him a star. But will fame change the once good-natured Vince?
On its surface, 'Jailhouse Rock' is an intriguing cautionary tale that gives Presley an opportunity to explore the dangers of his own celebrity. In fact, in hindsight, his performance in 'Jailhouse Rock' is an eerily prophetic look at the sort of self-destructive values that would ultimately pave the path to Presley’s own death nearly twenty years later.
Unfortunately, even with relatively familiar material, it's pretty obvious that Presley isn't a great actor. He spends the majority of his time on screen trying to nail the badboy façade perfected by James Dean, but his delivery is painfully stocky, and he seems unable to imbue his lines with the sort of passion that erupts out of every pore of his being during the film’s musical numbers. His face comes alive for each song, but it locks into a wooden stare every time the last trumpet blares. The result is an underwhelming one-note performance that doesn't allow 'Jailhouse Rock' to gain any genuine momentum. By the film's tragic climax, it was all too clear I was watching a film -- my suspension of disbelief was never forgiving enough to sink into Vince's cookie-cutter world. The other actors follow suit and the film often feels like a high-school play gone wrong.
The only saving grace for me is that elements of the production serve as an intriquing window into American culture in the late '50s. I found myself considering a wide variety of topics -- the budding rebellion of '50s rock-n-roll, the emergence of the anti-hero as an audience favorite, and the idea of celebrity being every man's calling. Our culture was simmering between the relief of World War II and the general unease it left in its wake. To see the effects of our nation's shifting perceptions materialize on screen (however subtle) made the experience worth my time, even if the film itself is downright awful.
Taken out of its original context, 'Jailhouse Rock' is a troubled film that can't seem to break free of its weak performances. The musical numbers are sure to rouse fans of the King's classic songs, but I can't imagine this particular Elvis film bringing any new fans into the fold. In 2004, the National Film Registry declared the film to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Sadly, that's about all 'Jailhouse Rock' has going for it.
'Jailhouse Rock' arrives on HD DVD with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer that remains faithful to its original black & white roots (thankfully, the hideous colorized version of the film is nowhere to be found). Framed in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the film isn't hindered by print scratches, source noise, or pesky edge enhancement. Contrast is stable, whites are crisp, and each shade of gray is strong enough to give the image a slight pop. Black levels are decent, but they often fall short of perfection. The darkest areas of the screen are rarely rendered accurately and the transfer tends to settle on charcoal tones instead of pitch black. This not only makes the image feel dated compared to better high-def catalog titles of the era, it prevents Warner's remastered transfer from fulfilling its potential.
Fine object detail is respectable (hair and clothing are noticeably improved over the title’s most recent standard DVD release), but the presentation is littered with random bouts of softness. It doesn't help that the film itself is hampered by cheap production values -- even the best remastering can't fix every fundamental flaw. Still, this is probably the best 'Jailhouse Rock' will ever look, and fans who own copies of the film on DVD will likely be much happier than those objectively judging the high-def visuals on their own merit.
(Note that the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions of 'Jailhouse Rock' feature identical VC-1 transfers.)
The audio package improves the experience, but not by much. This HD DVD edition of 'Jailhouse Rock' features a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/ 16-Bit/ 3.0 Mbps), a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (640 kbps), as well as the film's original mono track (192 kbps). While each mix does a great job of reproducing the film's original source, the high-end TrueHD 5.1 track barely distinguishes itself from the standard surround mix. Bass tones have the same weight, treble tones are almost identical, and voices are just as clear on each track. I appreciate the variety of audio options, but in a case like this, you have to wonder why a TrueHD track was created for the film in the first place.
Both tracks rise and fall in unison. Dynamics are impressive considering the film's age, and the soundfield is nicely prioritized. While the two tracks suffer from the limitations of the on-set recordings, the tonal quality of the actors' voices are remarkably well-preserved. Unfortunately, there isn't much more to compliment or criticize, since the tracks are fairly empty. The music numbers sound fuller than I expected, but they're almost entirely packed into the front channels, failing to establish an aggressive presence or develop an immersive soundfield. All in all, 'Jailhouse Rock' sounds pretty good for a fifty year-old film, but this one’s certainly not going to knock anybody off their feet.
Originally released as a barebones standard DVD in 1997, 'Jailhouse Rock' was later re-released as a Collector's Edition DVD to celebrate the film's fiftieth anniversary. This HD DVD version includes each of the extras that were available on the Collector's Edition DVD, but here too, the end results are fairly underwhelming.
Fifty years after the fact, 'Jailhouse Rock' is probably best left to die-hard Elvis fans -- the musical numbers are entertaining, but they can't save the film from poor acting. At least this HD DVD edition is a suitable upgrade from previous DVDs, featuring a good video transfer, a decent audio package, and an informative audio commentary. If you dig the King, check it out. All others -- you’ve been warned.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.