Arts
The Oldie Magazine|July 2021
Arts
Len Hawkins

NETFLIX

HARRY MOUNT

ELVIS PRESLEY: THE SEARCHER

You might think this Elvis documentary would be biased. It was devised by his ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and his great friend, Jerry Schilling, cleverest of the Memphis Mafia.

Instead, it’s a two-part, 215-minute, objective view of Elvis’s life, as told through his songs. The talking heads are serious: from Priscilla to Ronnie Tutt, Elvis’s drummer in the 1970s; from Bruce Springsteen to the late Tom Petty.

Petty’s words stand for the whole film: ‘He was a light for all of us. We should dwell in what was so beautiful and everlasting – the great, great music.’

The title of the film comes from Priscilla Presley’s words to its producer, Jon Landau: she called Elvis ‘the searcher’.

That searching tendency produced his rare alchemy, combining rhythm and blues, country and gospel. Listen to the Sun Sessions, recorded at Sun Studios, Memphis, in 1954 and 1955, when he was 19 and 20, just before he became globally famous in 1956. His voice then was higher but still a miracle.

Bing Crosby’s voice was said to be the perfect singing-in-the-shower voice. Elvis’s voice wasn’t just the ideal rock ’n’ roll voice. It was also the perfect voice for ballads like Wooden Heart, Don’t and Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Thom Zimny, who co-edited, co-produced and directed the film, takes a convincing approach to the arc of Elvis’s career. It’s more nuanced than John Lennon’s line, ‘Elvis really died the day he joined the army.’

In fact, Elvis hit an artistic high spot on his immediate return from the army in the 1960 album Elvis Is Back!, particularly in the songs Fever and The Girl of My Best Friend.

How odd, too, that the most influential rebel of the 20th century should produce two gospel albums, His Hand in Mine (1960) and How Great Thou Art (1967), in the trendy, epoch-shattering 1960s.

Yes, most of Elvis’s films in the 1960s were rubbish, with the odd inspired song – such as C’mon Everybody in Viva Las Vegas (1964), where Ann-Margret and Elvis pull off a thrilling, erotic, high-tempo dance act. Elvis’s dancing was an underrated arrow in his quiver: DJ Fontana, his 1950s drummer, said Presley could signal a sophisticated series of drum beats with the tiniest of body moves.

The film acknowledges the bad effect of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, forcing him into those terrible films. But, still, it was the Colonel who made Elvis big in the first place.

And Elvis did have the gumption to countermand the Colonel’s schlocky tendencies in his magical, later moments– in the ’68 Comeback Special and the strikingly original 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis.

Because this documentary is about Elvis’s music, it barely deals with his tragic death in 1977, at the age of only 42.

But the 1970s still produced its high moments. Before he ballooned in weight, his live shows were a unique, vast spectacle. His band was combined with backing vocals by the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, the Stamps, Kathy Westmoreland and a 30-piece orchestra.

Few other American artists could have afforded the expense. Few other artists could have been quite so spectacularly American, for that matter. Watch him sing An American Trilogy in the 1973 Aloha from Hawaii satellite broadcast to a billion viewers. He’s wearing a white jumpsuit, emblazoned with 6,500 gemstones depicting two American bald eagles, and a belt featuring the Great Seal of the United States (pictured).

With any other singer, it would have been embarrassing. With Elvis, it just feels startlingly authentic, as he always was.

THEATRE

WILLIAM COOK

THE DEEP BLUE SEA NATIONAL THEATRE AT HOME

Helen McCrory’s death in April, from cancer, aged just 52, robbed the British theatre of one of its great performers.

To honour her memory, the National Theatre is streaming one of her greatest performances, as the tragic heroine of Terence Rattigan’s finest play. It’s a fitting tribute to a woman who achieved so much yet promised so much more. In this haunting production, which premièred in 2016, she’s at the height of her powers.

During the first lockdown, the National streamed numerous productions free of charge. Although they’re no longer streaming them for free, the sums they’re charging are still pretty modest: £7.99 for one play, £9.99 for a month’s unlimited viewing, £99.99 for a whole year. Sure, it’s not quite the same as seeing a play in the theatre, but online you can see productions that have been and gone, starring people who are no longer with us. I’m so pleased they’ve preserved this performance of Rattigan’s 1952 play.

McCrory plays Hester Collyer, a vicar’s daughter slipping into middle age, who’s left her dutiful husband, a High Court judge, for Freddie Page, a feckless former RAF pilot. Tormented by the realisation that she loves him far more than he can ever love her, she tries to kill herself. The play begins with her attempted suicide and charts the passage of the day after.

During that day, Rattigan reveals the true nature of his characters: Hester’s husband is a decent chap, but he’s incapable of understanding her; Freddie is a war hero, but in peacetime he’s entirely selfish. The moral centre of the play is Miller, a struck-off doctor who saves Hester’s life. A German refugee, he was interned on the Isle of Man and subsequently sent to prison for some unspecified, scandalous offence. Rattigan’s message is clear: we are all flawed, and the people with most flaws often have the most love to give.

Rattigan’s astute and subtle stagecraft transforms this melancholy storyline into something exhilarating – almost uplifting. He allows us no false promises or easy sentimentality but, amid the misery and heartbreak, something wonderful shines through – the indefatigability of the human spirit. Miller’s advice to Hester is blunt and simple: ‘Go on living.’ Not because better times lie ahead (they may not) but because we must.

Tom Scutt’s cavernous set evokes the drab austerity of ration-book Britain. Once a smart townhouse, now divided into bedsits, the shabby setting reflects Hester’s bleak predicament. Her generation have won the war but lost the peace. Their best days may be behind them. But, like all the best plays, The Deep Blue Sea doesn’t leave us feeling hopeless. It finds some comfort in the darkness. It lights the way ahead.

After his death, aged 66, in 1977, Rattigan’s well-made plays were dismissed as safe and stuffy, but they’ve aged far better than the kitchen-sink dramas that replaced them. Belittled for his posh background and commercial success, he was actually a champion of the underdog – not people in abject poverty, admittedly, but respectable folk like Hester who’ve fallen on hard times. Despite his Establishment credentials, he knew how it felt to be an outsider. The Deep Blue Sea was inspired by the suicide of his lover, the actor Kenneth Morgan.

Carrie Cracknell’s direction is sensitive and unobtrusive, and Tom Burke is superb as the shallow, self-centred Freddie – he makes you want to slap him. Nick Fletcher is sublimely understated as the enigmatic Miller.

But the show belongs to McCrory. Her portrait of a woman on the edge of an abyss has everything – passion, defiance, desolation, despair… She dares to reveal every emotion. She lays herself bare. Her voice has extraordinary range, yet she remains utterly naturalistic. Some of the most moving moments are when she’s silent and alone on the stage.

She left behind so many monuments, on TV and in the cinema, from Peaky Blinders to Harry Potter, but this is the one I’ll really cherish. RIP.

RADIO

VALERIE GROVE

I wish I could create a podcast I might ‘host and monetise’, as websites advise. Something simple; infantile even. Like Michael Mosley’s Just One Thing, which suggests you should stand on one leg every day. Or breathe in and out, slowly.

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