The only rock star ever to enjoy prolonged success on the silver screen, Elvis Presley was a phenomenon the likes of whom will never be seen again. His impact remains incalculable, and it could easily be argued that no figure of the postwar era exerted a greater or more far-reaching influence on popular culture. It is fashionable to bash his 31 feature films, and indeed they pale in comparison to Richard Lester's features with the Beatles, to name just one example. However, the continuing importance of rock & roll in film -- not only as a subject matter but also as an essential component of soundtracks and scores -- seems inconceivable had Presley not first made the music both commercially viable and culturally palatable. His movies were made and marketed solely for his fans, and they responded in droves. By extension, he created a youth market which, despite myriad generational changes, remains essentially the same decades later, and all other pop musicians turned movie stars, from Prince to Madonna to the Spice Girls, have followed in his footsteps.
The details of Presley's early years have passed into mythology: Born January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, MS, he grew up in abject poverty, later working as a truck driver for the Memphis-based Crown Electric company. As a gift for his mother, he recorded an acetate demo which brought him to the attention of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, who soon brought him back to the studio to record with area musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black. From the release of his first single, "That's All Right, Mama," Presley was a juggernaut; he later moved to the RCA label and there became a national phenomenon, widely credited with popularizing the burgeoning rock & roll movement. Hollywood was immediately interested, and his manager, the notorious Colonel Tom Parker, signed contracts with the likes of 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and MGM without Presley even appearing before the camera. His pictures were tailored exclusively to his needs, with bare-bones plots, exotic locales, beautiful co-stars, and numerous musical numbers. The first, 1956's Love Me Tender, was a Civil War-era Western that became one of the year's biggest hits and launched a Number One single with its title track.
Presley's next film, 1957's Jailhouse Rock, was one of his best, thanks to its imaginative production numbers. It was followed by Loving You and then 1958's King Creole, a rare attempt at a more substantial offering -- in this case, an adaptation of the Harold Robbins novel A Stone for Danny Fisher. When it was announced that Presley had been inducted into the Army, many predicted career disaster, but he resurfaced in 1960 bigger than ever with G.I. Blues. By now, he had stopped performing live to concentrate almost solely on films; even the majority of his albums were soundtrack recordings. Throughout the decade, Presley made two or three films annually, all essentially variations on the same formula; in no less than three different films -- 1964's Viva Las Vegas, 1966's Spinout, and 1968's Speedway -- he even played a race car driver. In 1969, he attempted to change his image by playing a dramatic role in Charro!, but in the wake of the Summer of Love his popularity as both a singer and an actor were on the wane. He then played a doctor in A Change of Habit, but it was his last film role. In the 1970s, Presley returned to live performance, and his popularity surged; however, years of drug abuse took their toll, and he died August 16, 1977. He remains more popular today than ever before.