In his highest grossing movie, Elvis shares the screen with Ann-Margret, easily creating the most electrifying teaming Elvis had on screen. He plays Lucky Jackson, a Grand Prix race driver working at a casino to raise cash for a new engine; she’s a hotel swimming instructor - and the romantic action revs up from their first meeting. George Sidney, who also directed Ann-Margret in 'Bye Bye Birdie,' combines the hormonal heat wave with fascinating sights of '60s Las Vegas. David Winters ('West Side Story') choreographed the 10 musical song-and-dance scenes which also featured his dancers. Songs include the high-roller title track, the stars' duet on "The Lady Loves Me," her sultry "Appreciation" and The King's version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say."
While I know Elvis Presley remains one of the most enduring (if not *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 plot 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, 'Viva Las Vegas' is eye-opening proof of Elvis Presley's enduring star power.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. brings 'Viva Las Vegas: 50th Anniversary' to Blu-ray on a single BD-25 disc that comes housed in a 40-page digibook package that includes lots of behind-the-scenes photos, production stills, and some trivia related to the movie and cast. After some logos and warnings, the disc transitions straight into the film, forgoing a traditional menu screen. With the exception of the new digibook packaging, this appears to be the exact same disc that was previously released in 2007.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Identical to the previous release, this is still a strong video presentation, but the image isn't quite as impressive as it once was in 2007.
The source print is in fantastic shape with no real signs of damage. A light layer of grain is visible throughout, retaining a reasonably filmic appearance. With that said, some scenes do look a little smooth and flat. Clarity is often very good, revealing sharp details in the various flashy costumes and sets, but there are some comparatively soft shots here and there. Colors are bight and vibrant, and the glittering lights of the Vegas strip pop right off the screen. Bold reds are particularly striking, though they do bleed just a tad. Contrast and black levels are well balanced and consistent and the overall image has a solid sense of dimension. On the downside, very minor compression artifacts like noise and false contouring are visible in isolated instances (particularly in dark skies), and there are some occasional halos around characters and objects.
While a brand new encode would have probably yielded slightly better results, this transfer remains quite pleasing and fans should be happy with the results.
The film is presented with an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track along with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track (the default) and an English Dolby Digital mono track. French and Spanish Dolby Digital mono tracks are included as well, and the disc features English SDH, English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Like the video, the audio tracks here are identical to those found on the 2007 release. Thankfully, they still hold up very well. Here's what Peter Bracke had to say about the mixes in his original review:
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.
All of the supplements from the previous disc are included here as well. Unfortunately, outside of the digibook packaging, there are no new bonus materials.
Make no mistake, 'Viva Las Vegas' is a cheesy Elvis Presley vehicle, but even if 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 50th Anniversary release is really nothing more than a repackaging of the previous disc in a new digibook -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The transfer and audio remain strong and there's even a couple of nifty extras. The digibook material isn't enough to warrant a double dip, but fans who haven't already purchased the film will likely want to snag this version.
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.