Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why people call him The King

Okay, now I get it.

Last week the wife was able to hook us up with tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show "Viva' Elvis" in Las Vegas - and I was simply blown away.

I've heard many a report and review, that this Cirque show is the weakest of the many Vegas offerings (save perhaps the dreadfully uncomfortable Adults only "Zumanity"). Certainly it would not have been my first choice - I've always been (as you may have read on this blog) a Beatles guy. Elvis never had near the appeal to me as much as the fab four did. I want very much to see the Cirque show "Love" and I'm sure I will some day. (As an aside, Grandma and Grandpa took my 7 year old to that one. She said she loved it, because she knew most of the songs, I'm proud to say.)

Elvis always seemed of an earlier generation than my parents - a bit stuffy and old fashioned. A rube, a hick, a simpleton. The music was definitely good, but not great. And yet, in the back of my mind, something does stir when I see that old footage of him - whether from the super early days when he clearly was an unstoppable force of sexuality and swagger, to his electrifying 68' comeback special or even his jumpsuit days in Vegas (just before he became a blobby mess) - I can see it, he clearly was a world class entertainer.

But I never got why they called him "King" until last Thursday night. He was a relic, a symbol of an ideal long passed.

This show - "Viva' Elvis" was made for people like me and younger, to tell us what all the fuss was about.

First and foremost, it was about the music. The music, the music, the music. As I often say about movies, it's all about the story, here with Elvis, it was all about the music.

You may recall that the Elvis estate has over the past few years re-issued some of his old songs, remixed and remastered to an electronic beat. These redone versions, "A Little Less Conversation" and "Rubber-Necking" are both enjoyable and capture the spirit of Elvis well, but they fall just a bit short of capturing what was so great about him. He is mired, almost in the background, behind thick electronic filters and a mechanical wall of sound. It's cool to hear him modernized, but there is something missing in the heart and soul.

Thankfully, the music in this show - Viva' Elvis - puts Elvis' voice front and center in the mix, raw and unaffected almost entirely. Then, and only then, do they go to town on re-mixing and re-arranging. By keeping the pure power of Elvis' voice and performance (through incredible vintage footage on a huge screen) front and center Cirque delivers a powerhouse showcase for a truly legendary performer.

From the opening chords and then vocals of "Blue Suede Shoes" I totally got it.

This, was, Elvis.

Most important of all, Cirque made Elvis himself the lead performer in this show. There are live singers sprinkled in here and there, particularly lovely is the rearranged "Love Me Tender" as a gorgeous duet, but by and large - 80% of the singing is The King himself.

If this were just Elvis singing and a bare bones concert, with just the Viva' Elvis band, it would still be a great show. The musicians on stage are tremendously talented - a top notch horn section, a very enthusiastic rhythm section with 2 drummers and two extremely energetic and flawless guitar players - unleash an amazing re-imagining of the King's standards, again with Elvis' voice at the heart of the mix, not auto-tuned or filtered.

From this incredible foundation, we are then taken on an emotional journey.

Viva' Elvis has all the great narrative devices of a Cirque show, floating people and objects, fog machines, shafts of light, lanterns, etc. that lend a real emotional resonance and power to the story of Elvis, and provide a solid foundation for the wallop to the soul that the backbeat inflicts.

There is also a good amount of high flying thrills to entertain. The acrobatic performers in the show are as always, top notch. But I can see why some Cirque fans might dismiss this show. There are less jaw dropping aerial feats in this show than in the other "classic" Cirque presentations. I've seen "O", "Mystere'" and "Quidam", all three very typical and wonderful Cirque shows, full of jumping, spinning, flipping and diving. Viva' Elvis sticks closer to the ground frequently, putting the emphasis on dance, and that may be why long time CDS boosters have given this one a thumbs down.

But that is entirely unfair, and misses the point. This show is about the King, and about his legacy - which is, first and foremost, the music. And this show delivers a one-two-three punch to the gut of anyone and everyone like me, who didn't quite get the hysteria for a simple son of the south.

And all the crazy bullshit in Elvis' life - his drug use, the womanizing, the lunacy (using a 44. pistol for a remote control on his televisions) - none of that matters in the face of the music. Cirque delivers a gripping narrative of the stuff that matters; family, faith, hope and yes, even love.

This show is a must see obviously for Elvis fans - but it is also required viewing for anyone who loves rock and roll, and who wants to know why this artist was great.