On January 6, Sony Music released The Perfect Elvis Soundtracks – a 20 CD box set featuring 17 original Elvis Presley soundtrack albums and three new compilations.
Covering the years 1957 to 1968, the Elvis box has been released as part of the label’s Perfect box-set series, which recently gave us The Johnny Cash Collection and The Perfect Columbia Jazz Collection. Yet while it’s easy to tag such a superlative as ‘perfect’ onto the works of The Man In Black or the albums of Bill Evans, Art Blakey and Miles Davis, it’s a little more difficult to apply the adjective to LPs that feature such disregarded works as Old Macdonald Had A Farm, Yoga Is As Yoga Does and Fort Lauderdale Chamber Of Commerce.
With that in mind, MOJO felt the need to reclaim Elvis’ movie years as a period where genius invention and accidental wildness often sat right alongside the lacklustre ballads and contractual honkers. Hold on tight though, because things are about to get very weird in Elvis land.
1. Got A Lot O' Livin' To Do! Taken from: Loving You (RCA, 1957)
Although it was his second movie (released a year after his 1956 cinematic debut in Love Me Tender), Loving You was the first Elvis film with a full-length soundtrack. This vivifying little hillbilly-swing convulsion is the standout, cut in the studio just four days after Elvis found out he'd been classified 1A by the Memphis Draft Board.
2. (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care Taken from: Jailhouse Rock EP (RCA, 1957)
The soundtrack for Elvis' third movie, 1957's Jailhouse Rock, was originally released as a four-track EP. Everyone knows the title track but this is the best example of the late Presley mix of insolence and charm. Written overnight by an up-against-it Leiber and Stoller, it's also the most in-the-pocket performance of the film, thanks to D.J. Fontana's stomping drums, Scotty Moore's chatty little guitar riff and that mean electric bass rumble, apparently played by Elvis himself.
3. Crawfish Taken from: King Creole (RCA, 1958)
The opening song from Elvis' 1958 movie, the brilliant King Creole, Crawfish was cut at Radio Recorders, Hollywood, California on January 15, 1958. His last recording session before entering the army, it was overseen by the film's director Michael Curtiz and Elvis' favourite engineer Thorne Nogar, responsible for the song's super-heavy bass-and-drums rhythm and Elvis' almost illicit interaction with Kitty White on those call-and-response vocals.
4. Pocket Full Of RainbowsTaken from: G.I. Blues (RCA, 1960)
In terms of both movie and soundtrack, 1960's G.I. Blues was the first real stinker of Elvis' film career, a sure sign that the army had done something irreparable to the King's mojo. But this is just lovely, a mellifluous David Lynch drug-dream dressed in the gossamer threads of Quiet Village exotica thanks to Julie Prowse's spectral vocals.
5. King Of The Whole Wide World Taken from: Kid Galahad EP (RCA, 1963)
Hal David contributed lyrics to two of the songs in Elvis' below-par 1962 boxing flick, but neither Home Is Where The Heart Is nor A Whistling Tune stand as the best of Elvis (or Hal). Far better is Bob Roberts and Ruth Bachelor's King Of The Whole Wide World, especially as seen in the title sequence, which appears to show Sergeant Presley quitting the army and entering the hollow world of musical comedy with nothing but his Pollyanna outlook and that deep dulcet voice to his name.
6. Flaming Star Taken from: Elvis By Request – Flaming Star EP (RCA, 1961)
Directed by crack genre auteur Don Siegel (The Killers, Dirty Harry), Flaming Star is, along with King Creole, the best film Elvis ever starred in. Taking a part originally written for Marlon Brando, Elvis is suitably troubled and moody as the "half-breed" cowboy Pacer, dogged by frontier racism. Brutal, moody and politically fascinating, the film also comes with one of the best cowboy ballads, the dark half of Lee Marvin's Wanderin' Star, concerning the ever-present "flaming star of death" that dogs us all.
7. Can't Help Falling In Love Taken from: Blue Hawaii
Some hold the Blue Hawaii soundtrack to be an exemplar of Elvis weirdness, a lava lamp delirium that's as integral to the history of Tiki culture lounge music as Martin Denny's The Enchanted Sea. This is undoubtedly Elvis through the looking glass, now divested of all pre-army rock'n'roll physicality and inhabiting strange new sexless fantasy landscapes. The high point remains this oddly sorrowful love ballad, Elvis' gospel rendition made all the more eerie and forlorn by the music-box backing and the fact that he is singing it to his girlfriend's grandmother.
8. We're Comin' In Loaded Taken from: Girls! Girls! Girls! (RCA, 1962)
OK. We've now crossed over, firmly ensconced in the Technicolor world of the Elvis Musical, a surreal back-projected realm of mirage, inconsequence and sweet harmony singing. 1962's Girls! Girls! Girls! has little to recommend it apart from Return To Sender and this, a miniature electric-bass Cochran rocker audibly inspired by Presley's exquisite 1960 gospel recordings, particularly his version of the African-American spiritual, Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho.
9. Bossa Nova Baby Taken from: Fun in Acapulco (RCA, 1963)
Scaling new heights of Elvis Musical ludicrousness, Fun In Acapulco was a studio-bound confusion in which Elvis plays Mike Windgren, lifeguard, nightclub singer and circus acrobat with a fear of heights, who accidently kills his brother in a trapeze stunt. The songs are mostly dreadful, the only highlight being Ursula Andress as a deposed Russian princess and this antic Leiber and Stoller belter, in which Elvis introduces the Brazilian bossa nova dance craze to Mexico, and simultaneously comments on the non-stop ecstatic hell of his movie work schedule.
10. Anyone Could Fall In Love With You Taken from: Kissin' Cousins (RCA, 1964)
Following poor box-office results, Colonel Tom Parker ordered swingeing spending cuts and 1964's Kissin' Cousins became the first of Elvis' low-budget quickies. A miserably unfunny tale of lookalike siblings (both played by Elvis) it also came with a depressingly hokey, hissy mare's-nest soundtrack of novelty hillbilly rubbish. The sole standout track – cut at RCA Studio B in Nashville with The Jordanaires – was excised from the final print of the movie.
11. I Need Somebody To Lean On Taken from: Viva Las Vegas (RCA, 1963)
Made before Kissin' Cousins, Viva Las Vegas was a thing of vulgar colour-saturated wonder, the last truly big budget Elvis movie, the last with a big name co-star (Ann-Margret) and arguably the last with a fully serviceable soundtrack. Highlights include the title track, slinky Ann-Margret duet, You're The Boss and this lonesome barroom blues, best heard in the movie, where it switches beguilingly from echoing interior monologue to neon-lit early-hours invocation.
12. Beginner's Luck Taken from: Frankie And Johnny (RCA, 1966)
Loosely based on the trad. arr. American ballad, inspired by Frankie Baker's murder of her young lover, Allen, in St. Louis in 1899, 1966's the Frankie And Johnny movie is a fascinating curio for fans of the meta Elvis narrative, a film that flits between oompah riverboat gooning and an overcast sense of failure, exhaustion and hopeless dreams. By the mid ’60s, Elvis often sounded tired of this rote soundtrack work, but in Frankie And Johnny the singer's audible exhaustion merely serve to underline the mood of desperation that runs through such forlorn ballads as Please Don't Stop Loving Me and Beginner's Luck.
13. Tomorrow Is A Long Time Taken from: Spinout (RCA, 1966)
Despite the fact that it includes Smorgasbord, a ludicrous sax twister in which singing race car driver Mike McCoy compares his lazy profligate carnality to a celebratory Swedish buffet, Spinout is a pretty good Elvis soundtrack. There are two nicely nonchalant rockers (the title track and Stop, Look, And Listen!) and three amazing bonus tracks: I'll Remember You, Down In The Alley and this, Elvis' five-and-a-half-minute take on one of Bob Dylan's 1962 Whitmark demos. Originally recorded during the sessions for his 1967 gospel album, How Great Thou Art, this is the King in haunted confessional mode, the smorgasbord finished, the racetrack circuit an endless highway, handsome Mike McCoy utterly bereft and alone.
14. City By Night Taken from: Double Trouble (RCA, 1967)
A European crime caper, in which all the Elvis scenes were filmed on a Hollywood backlot, Double Trouble has little to recommend it and even features one of Elvis's most saddening appearances, performing Old Macdonald Had A Farm on a chicken truck. But hidden away in there is this sleazy blur of supper-club jazz noir, Elvis moving through subterranean shadows, tracked by Floyd Cramer's laughing piano, Boots Randolph's bass sax and Richard Noel's hallucinatory trombone drone.
15. You Don't Know Me Taken from: Clambake (RCA, 1967)
Some of the best scenes in the later Elvis movies are those points where it seems as if the plastic mask slips and something approximating a real hurting person is glimpsed underneath. Clambake is an oddly melancholy muddle of assumed identities and empty wealth and You Don't Know Me is one of those great Elvis Movie Soliloquy moments, where the performer stands outside of the empty action and appears to ponder the pointlessness of it all. The fact that Presley is carrying a little extra weight in the scene merely adds to the pathos.
16. Speedway Taken From: Speedway (RCA, 1968)
"Just everything about ‘Speedway’ is superbly exciting," writes one IMDB user about Elvis' first movie offering of 1968. "What else could you expect out of a movie that stars the king of rock and roll!" By the late ’60s the best thing you could say about Elvis' movies is that at least they starred Elvis. With its somewhat fitting plot about a stock-car driver with money troubles, Speedway is the tapped-out brother of 1966's Spinout, and the soundtrack is similarly distressed. However, it does feature Nancy Sinatra's solo rendition of Lee Hazlewood's arch hep-speak put-on, Your Groovy Self and a title track that cooks with a nervy amphetamine cheapness.
17. All I Needed Was The Rain Taken from: Elvis Sings Flaming Star (RCA, 1969)
It's the second film in which Elvis plays a "half breed" Native American but unlike 1961's Flaming Star, no-one has ever tried to reclaim Stay Away Joe as a great lost Elvis movie, perhaps because Flaming Star never featured a scene in which the King chases two naked Native American woman through the hills whilst serenading an impotent bull. But it was the start of Movie Elvis' fascinating late weird period, and features the first of a run of great southern soul grooves across Elvis' final films, here aided by the wailing harmonica of Charlie McCoy and a pack of howling dogs.
18. A Little Less Conversation Taken from: RCA 7", 1968
1968's Live A Little, Love A Little is a genuine curio, far closer to a ’60s Frank Tashlin comedy or one of the cracked suburban vignettes from Stanley Kramer's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Elvis is even allowed to parody his own cinematic identity and the three of the four songs in the soundtrack are brilliantly, knowingly odd, especially the Magic Tollbooth psychedelic ballet trip, Edge Of Reality and this straight-eight fuzz'n'breakbeat put-down of the film's hippie philosophies, written by Mac Davis and Billy Strange during a twenty minute lunch break, and cut by the Wrecking Crew team of Hal Blaine, Al Casey, Larry Knechtel, and Don Randi.
19. Clean Up Your Own Backyard Taken from: RCA 7", 1969
A film about a murder in a Chautauqua travelling Christian education tent-show in 1920s Iowa seems an unlikely proposition for Elvis' ever dwindling cinema fan-base. The Trouble With Girls’ reception wasn't helped by being shoved out on the bottom of double-bills with Raquel Welch stripper-in-jeopardy vehicle, Flareup and Anglo-Japanese sci-fi space horror, The Green Slime. The few who saw it, however, were treated to a number of scenes in which Presley looked more at ease and laid-back than he ever had on the cinema screen before, especially in his easygoing rendition of Mac Davis and Billy Strange's swamp-country swipe at organised religion, Clean Up Your Own Backyard. George Harrison was a fan, telling one interviewer in 1969 "Christ said 'Put your own house in order'. Elvis said 'Clean up your own backyard', so that's the thing. If everybody just fixes themselves up first, instead of trying to fix everybody else up like the Lone Ranger, then there isn't any problem."
20. Rubberneckin' Taken from: RCA B-side, 1969
Elvis' last acting role was playing opposite Mary Tyler Moore as a hipster inner-city doctor who falls for his co-worker, without realising she is a nun. The opening ten minutes show Moore and her fellow plain-clothes nuns arriving in the sleaze-heart of a ’70s ghetto, intercut with a scene in which Elvis entertains his fellow free-clinic teen volunteers with this lascivious Memphis soul groove-paean to girl-watching. If that doesn't make you want to watch the rest of this deeply off movie, nothing will.