Monday, October 07, 2013

Viewing Notes: ELVIS: ALOHA FROM HAWAII (1973)

Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, 1973, d. Marty Pasetta
with Elvis Presley, J.D. Sumner & the Stamps Quartet, The Sweet Inspirations, The TCB Band, The Joe Guercio Orchestra

January 14, 1973: Elvis Aron Presley performs a benefit concert in Honolulu with a setlist fairly representative of a typical early '70s show. Broadcast Live! Via Satellite! to most of the world, Aloha from Hawaii eventually aired in the U.S. on April 4, 1973. Resplendent in the white rhinestone American Eagle jumpsuit (saving the spreading of its bright blue-lined cape for the finale), Elvis is freshly 38 years old, deeply tanned and helmet-coiffed, tosses out one hundred scarves, accepts two hundred leis from the audience, and pours about ten thousand years of pain and passion into this unforgettable show. Aloha is comfortably Elvis' last indispensable film/television appearance; there was to be one more TV special, 1977's Elvis in Concert, which was taped two months before his death, and veers between ghoulish and tragic — often wrenching in its humanity, but frequently difficult to bear. And so Aloha is the restless heart and sweaty soul of the MOR-rock sound Vegas act era, and Elvis' pinnacle late-period performance.

After a preliminary weird "satellite" beeping-accompanied montage of Elvis' name in every language of the Earth, the man touches down in a helicopter and greets fans, accompanied by the 1965 studio track "Paradise, Hawaiian Style." And I bring this up, because while the song is not inappropriate, and the title number is not the worst song from that film (I rather like it as a lazy fantasy travelogue), it is drawn from the period representing the absolute nadir of Elvis' film career. Any shuddery memories of Tickle Me aroused by this dispatch from the pit are wiped as "Also sprach Zarathustra" wells up over images of local traditional dance and drum performance groups warming up the crowd outside the Honolulu International Center auditorium. In the '68 Comeback Special, Elvis counteracted this phase of his career with a dismissive joke about forgetting how many movies he's made, and reclaimed his image by reinvigorating his R&B classics. In Aloha, he blares Richard Strauss' fanfare announcing the dawn. A sun, rising.

Given this context, but really due to the performance itself, looking at the special as a summation of where he is right at the moment of 1973, each song seems to examine an aspect of Elvis' career, personal life and relationship with his audience. This is, for instance, a definitive performance of "An American Trilogy", the thematically complex medley that moves through nostalgic minstrelsy to folk spiritual to Christian hymn built out of an abolitionist anthem, and Elvis guides it through every turn with the required bombast and/or sensitivity, as if drawing together everything he has ever learned about American music. The towering rendition of Marty Robbins' "You Gave Me a Mountain", wherein Elvis inflates the sad-sack country weeper into a personal despair-anthem like an inverted "My Way", is like a promise to himself and us and God and everyone that though there is no way on this Earth he's going to make it in the end, here in Honolulu he's going to try with every fiber of his being. When he'd do "Mountain" for Elvis in Concert, it would be with far different results: though he's smiling and surrendering, there's no way he's getting over that mountain and he knows it.

There is a little bit of everything on the buffet, but the beefiest material in the show are the big operatic ballads and From Elvis in Memphis era angst-rockers. The 2004 Deluxe Edition 2-DVD set preserves the entire "rehearsal"/backup concert of January 12th (taped in case of broadcast mishap), during which Elvis staggers around and mumbles non sequitur stage patter. He'd do this out of pure musical delirium even in the '50s, but at the rehearsal show seems a little out of it, whether due to fatigue, energy conservation, or other factors. While not as tight as it could be, the rehearsal is not a disaster by any means and occasionally during this show he gets that faraway look in his eyes, loses himself in a song — or even just part of a song — and gives over to the sheer power of the music. He nails "Burning Love" to the wall, for example, despite forgetting the words and swapping verses around to compensate; Elvis stands like a shoreside Easter Island moai as that tidal wave of a song crashes over him. Likewise, during the broadcast "Suspicious Minds" — in blazing arrangement, greatly sped up from the studio version— Elvis drops far too many lines while screwing around with fans for my taste. So here again, I personally prefer the rehearsal performance of "Suspicious Minds," silly crowd-teasing fuck-aroundary near the end notwithstanding. Thankfully, during both shows he offered that sublime alteration to the bridge: "You know I never lied to you/ No, not much...". The ideal Aloha experience is certainly the uninterrupted show of January 14th (also presented on the Deluxe DVD), but for the sorts of reasons above, the slightly off-kilter rehearsal of January 12th is not to be dismissed.

Those in the 21st Century seeking kitsch in Aloha will typically locate it in the costuming and lung-bursting crooning (and, if I may be so bold, "Welcome to My World", which has never been anything but unrefined schmaltz that Elvis was never able to redeem). But in 1973, "Hound Dog" was a 21-year-old song, and Elvis' recording was nearly that old itself. The '50s hits were the nostalgia act portion of the show, both for audience and artist. There is a common complaint that Aloha pays some disrespect to these classic gold records, as the formerly lean-and-mean rockers are loaded up with full orchestration, and Elvis tends to goof around the most during the older numbers. These oldies are simply not as dangerous as when they first bared their claws to the world, and given the venues and style in which Elvis was performing cannot be given the same kind of new lease on life as the ferocious '68 Comeback. Instead, he connects in a more physically intimate way with fans while lightly teasing the pre-'68 material that might seem a bit quaint in '73, as if reaffirming and reminding them that these silly old songs are the basis of this highly devoted fan/artist contract. Make no mistake, The Hillbilly Cat is my favorite Elvis phase as it is yours, but in Aloha we're not listening to records, we're watching a show, and this show radiates an enormous amount of goodwill.

Where playing it straight counts the most, Elvis plays it straight, introducing his respectful take on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" as "probably the saddest song I've ever heard." He would rarely screw around during perennial opener "See See Rider". When he closes with "Can't Help Falling In Love" from Blue Hawaii, there is no doubt: he is singing it straight at you, you personally, and what you find there is between you and Elvis. As a Hawaiian loanword in English, aloha means hello. Aloha means goodbye. Aloha means peace. Aloha means love.

Viewed on: 10/7/13 — DVD (BMG/Elvis Presley Enterprises; Region 1)