While I know Elvis Presley remains of the most enduring (if *the* most enduring) stars of the 20th century, I guess I was born just a wee bit too late to really understand what all the fuss is about. I'm certainly familiar with his music, and of course I'd seen clips from his films and other appearances over the years on TV, but frankly it all seemed as relevant to me as those old Beach Blanket Bingo movies. Perhaps as a result, despite all the discs I've reviewed over the years, somehow I'd managed to avoid sitting through an entire Elvis flick until now.
And so it was with a certain sense of dread that I finally sat down to watch 'Viva Las Vegas' for this review. Looking back, I'm honestly not sure what I expected, but having now watched the film, I have to admit to being surprised to discover what a likable, energetic screen presence Elvis could be. Granted, like John Wayne, it's his iconic persona that takes centerstage and not his acting chops. But it's now clear to me why Elvis was able to enjoy such a successful run at the box office even if he probably never made a movie that could legitimately be considered good throughout his entire acting career. The guy simply had that magnetic charisma, that indefinable something, that can instantly elevate a story as silly and hokey as Viva Las Vegas' into great drive-in entertainment.
The film stars Elvis as Grand Prix driver Lucky Jackson, who comes to Vegas to beat the pants off rival racer Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova) in a big derby. But after a few unlucky rounds at the card table, Jackson now needs some fast cash in order to finish his own custom-built car that's guaranteed to win the race. Forced to work as a hotel waiter, he attempts to woo the luscious Rusty Martin (Ann-Margaret). As the clocks ticks down to the big race, can Lucky fine-tune his hot rod, win the girl and defeat the dastardly Elmo?
Okay, so the splot is stupid, but frankly that's besides the point. 'Viva Las Vegas' triumphs not because of any narrative brilliance, but because the King is in top form -- singin', swingin' and generally having a non-stop big-screen party that's genuinely infectious. The film is also surprisingly slick and well-directed by George Sidney ('Annie Get Your Gun,' 'Bye Bye Birdie'), whose prowling camera, fanciful art direction and whip-smart pacing ensure there is never a dull moment throughout the film's breezy 85 minutes.
But arguably the real secret weapon of 'Viva Las Vegas' is Ann-Margaret. Said to be the only one of Elvis' co-stars to hold her own against his commanding presence, she's a triple threat to his own triple threat -- a whirling dervish of a singer, dancer and actor. Criminally underrated throughout her career, Margaret is also incredibly sexy, and her on-screen chemistry with Elvis almost ignites the celluloid it was printed on. It's also no surprise that she would come to be called "the female Elvis," and at one point, Presley's own manager was said to be so worried she'd upstage Elvis that he had their originally-planned multiple duets reduced to just one. But even with her hands tied behind her back, Margaret remains the firebrand that really lights a fire under all of Elvis' ass-shaking, and without her, 'Viva Las Vegas' wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.
It turns out I was lucky to have 'Viva Las Vegas' be my introduction to Elvis' cinematic canon. Although he made over 30 films between 1956 and 1969, 'Vegas' is widely considered the best of the bunch, and is said to have marked his commercial peak before "the beginning of the end" -- his subsequent career tailspin that transformed him into the "bloated druggie" that's now the butt of so many jokes. Frankly, if this is his cinematic peak then I remain somewhat wary of his other films, but it certainly shouldn't stop anyone from giving this one a spin. Thoroughly entertaining in its own right, especially for film fans of my generation, 'Viva Las Vegas' is eye-opening proof of Elvis Presley's enduring star power.
All I can say is wow. I really wasn't expecting much at all from 'Viva Las Vegas' in terms of picture quality, but Warner has really gone the extra mile with this simply gorgeous remaster -- if only all 40 year-old films looked this fantastic!
As usual, Warner gives us their now-standard identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray, framed at the movie's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. I don't know what magic the studio has worked up in their top-secret high-def lab, but the source is immaculate. Grain and imperfections have been wiped away, and the rich blacks and perky contrast are pretty sweet. Colors are even better -- rich, bold and vibrant, but totally free of the noise and bleeding you might expect on a 1964 flick. Detail is also usually exquisite, with great depth to the majority of the image and fine textures visible even in the darkest shadows.
I did find some weak spots. One could argue that the source has been cleaned up so much that it looks too good, resulting in a digital feel to the transfer that may anger some purists -- to be sure, any "film-like" feel is long gone. Fleshtones look "painted on," which hardly helps realism (though to be fair, the excessive make-up may have something to do with it, and the "kabuki face" look is entirely typical to musicals of the period). Also, while '60s film stocks were understandably soft by today's standards, it's clear some some serious edge enhancement has been applied to sharpen up 'Viva Las Vegas.' Halos can be obvious at times, as well as jaggies on hard lines -- neither to the point of being excessive, but they are noticeable.
Regardless of these small drawbacks, 'Viva Las Vegas' yet another catalog master Warner can really be proud off. As far as I'm concerned, the studio is -- title-for-title -- currently at the top of the pack when it comes to cranking out absolutely lovely, and usually stunning vintage re-issues on high-def. Bravo!
Warner continues to surprise by providing not only a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (640kbps) remaster and the film's original 1.0 mono track in Dolby Digital (at 192kbps), but a fresh Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/16-bit), as well. Clearly, great effort has gone into rehabbing and upgrading the original audio elements, but at the same time the inclusion of the original mono track is sure to be a boon for purists. This is the rare catalog title that really gets the audio right.
Though I can always appreciate listening to a vintage title in its original audio form, I definitely preferred the TrueHD track. Okay, so even in cleaned-up form, the fidelity of the original elements is clearly dated. But for a 1964 flick, I was startled by how supple dynamic range is. The highs are clean and smooth, with little of that irritating brittleness that usually plagues older soundtracks. Low bass is no slouch, either, with the music packing plenty of kick thanks to a very active subwoofer.
Since 'Viva Las Vegas' is a musical, the soundfield only really opens up during the song and dance sequences. Though I couldn't detect any truly discrete effects in the surrounds, the processed bleeds are nicely done, and the rear soundfield has some real depth to it. General atmosphere is pretty perky, too, with some nice if slight ambient effects popping up throughout. Dialogue is also surprisingly even and well balanced, and even Elvis's deep voice is consistently intelligible. Very impressive indeed.
A great transfer and soundtrack arguably would have been enough for 'Viva Las Vegas,' but Warner has even managed to create a couple of new extras -- an impressive feat considering that most of the film's cast and crew have long since passed on.
Kicking things off, Warner has tapped author Steve Pond, who wrote the definitive retrospective "Elvis in Hollywood," to record a new audio commentary. For this type of track it's a cut above. Pond speaks straightforwardly but enthusiastically throughout, and is expert at giving us a historical context for 'Viva Las Vegas' in terms of Elvis' cinematic career, as well as the usual behind-the-scenes and historical tidbits. Pond clearly knows his stuff, delving into everything from Elvis' sometimes-tempestuous dealings with his manager Colonel Parker (who apparently regarded his cinematic endeavors as mere money-making ventures) to the gossip surrounding the star's off-screen relationship with Ann-Margaret. This is a fun listen for Elvis fanatics and non-devotees alike.
Also new is the 21-minute featurette "Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas." This is an intriguing contextual piece, less about the making of the movie and more about how 'Viva Las Vegas' fits into Elvis' career. I had no idea that he played frequently in the city in his early years (to little success), and that though he would return there in later years, Vegas was never particularly kind to him. This is interesting stuff, and considering the breezy runtime, is well worth watching.
Rounding out the extras is the film's vintage Theatrical Trailer.
(Note that all the video-based extras listed above are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.)
Make no mistake, 'Viva Las Vegas' is a cheesy Elvis Presley vehicle, but even if (like me) you're not a fan of The King at all, the movie is still a lot of fun, thanks in large part to Presley's palpable on-screen chemistry with the fabulous Ann-Margaret. This HD DVD release is also a stunner -- fantastic transfer, a Dolby TrueHD track and a even couple of nifty extras. This really is a catalog release par excellence, and is recommended for all.
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.