Continuing our slow web-release of all the great content from the first issue of The Mockingbird, our new print quarterly. If you are without a copy of the first issue, it’s not too late. And if you are waiting for Issue 2, due out this June, make sure you sign up for a subscription here.
To read David Zahl’s essay in full, visit the magazine’s webpage.
I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. If previous forays into the music and life of Elvis Presley had taught me anything, it was that the King was fundamentally surprising. Just when you thought you had him pinned down to a specific style or period or even medium, some fresh aspect of his talent would appear in your blind-spot and blow your mind. I knew this intellectually, and still I was having a hard time taking in what was on the screen.
You see, I thought there was nothing left to discover about my favorite period of Elvis’s, the “comeback” that started in mid-1968 and trailed off in late 1970. Yet there I was, watching the slender, sideburned master lead worship in what appeared to be a Catholic church, the camera darting from shots of the singer with guitar in hand to images of a smiling Mary Tyler Moore wearing a nun’s habit to close-ups of…the crucified Christ. And hold on—was that Darlene Love I spied dancing next to him and singing back up? What about that bassline? Vatican II was radical but surely it didn’t allow for this degree of funk?
I was experiencing one of those pop culture moments that feels a bit like betrayal. How come no one had told me about this?! Weren’t there people out there who loved me and didn’t those people know that nothing could be further up my alley, that this might even be the alley itself? I had stumbled on a clip from Elvis’s last dramatic film, 1969’s Change of Habit, and little did I know that my love affair with the boy from Tupelo had only just begun (P. Williams).
Let me backtrack. No one disputes the magic and earth-shattering import of Elvis Presley in the 1950s. And even those who can’t stand the schmaltz of Elvis in the 70s won’t deny that there was something iconic about his reinvention as a jump-suited Vegas crooner. The decade that people tend to ignore—comeback notwithstanding—is the 1960s. More specifically 1961-1967, also known as his “movie period” (which isn’t entirely accurate, since he first stood in front of the camera in 1956, but no need to get all technical). It’s not that Elvis was unpopular—the films raked in oodles of cash (EP was the first actor to command $1 million/picture, believe it or not)—only that there seems to be universal agreement that those years, which coincided with a break from live music performance, were something of a valley in his all-too-short professional life. There’s a reason we call it a “comeback” after all.
Some fans feel so strongly about his waywardness during this time that they’ve tried to rewrite history. When BMG issued their trio of authoritative EP boxed sets in the 90s, “50s Masters,” “60s Masters,” and “70s Masters,” the 60s one did not include any of his soundtrack material—which comprised the vast majority of his recorded output that decade. You have to purchase a separate collection to hear those cuts.
All this to say, for the serious Elvis fan, the “movie period” represents a final frontier, the place you only go once you’ve exhausted everything else. Perhaps this is why I hadn’t come across “Let Us Pray” and its video until I had been a certified Elvis lover for nigh on two decades. It had taken me that long to reach the point of desperation where I was ready to see for myself if the movie songs were as awful as rumored. If I knew Elvis as well as I thought I did, surely there would be a handful of tracks worth hearing.