Music

Elvis Presley: Way Down in the Jungle Room

Way Down in the Jungle Room is more than just yet another repackaging of the King’s work, instead showing how vital a performer Presley remained right up to the end.


Elvis Presley

Way Down in the Jungle Room

Label: RCA / Legacy
US Release Date: 2016-08-05
UK Release Date: 2016-08-05
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Has there ever been an artist who catalog has been as purloined, chopped, reshuffled and repackaged as Elvis Presley? From the glut of hastily assembled albums released in the wake of his untimely death at the age of 42 in August of 1977 to the seemingly endless stream of live recordings, greatest hits packages and remastered editions of his original albums, it seems everything Elvis ever laid to tape has seen the light of day in some way, shape or form. And while not all of it is worth pursuing -- Having Fun with Elvis on Stage is certainly for completists only -- much of his post-“comeback” output is far better than it has been falsely remembered within the broader scheme of popular culture. Painted as a bloated caricature of the heartthrob he had once been, the version of Elvis in the 1970s that exists within the collective cultural unconscious is an exaggerated parody of the truth.

To be sure, by the 1970s Elvis was far from the person he had been when he first sent shivers down the spines of countless teenagers and put the fear of the devil in their bewildered parents. But the same could be said of nearly anyone still performing after 20 years of cultural relevance. To expect him to remain the pomaded, hip-shaking hell-raiser of his early 20s was not only unfair to his artistic growth, but also wildly impractical. The fact of the matter is, regardless of who you are, time changes you; either through experience, the acquisition of knowledge or wealth and the mere passage of time. The expectation of a performer of Elvis’ caliber to remain static is patently absurd.

Naturally, the musical landscape had changed a great deal since his Sun Records debut, but unlike many of his peers who found themselves being packaged on the Oldies revival tour circuit playing their moldering hits well past their expiration date, Elvis continued to move forward with only the occasional glance back. Rather than relying on the recorded output of his younger years to carry him through the years, Elvis remained an avid collector of songs, tackling contemporary pop and country with aplomb. Much of this is evident in the seemingly endless stream of live recordings that have surfaced over the years, the 1970s in particular finding a loose and jovial Elvis joking equally with the audience and his backing band while tearing through number after number with a seasoned voice far more powerful than that of his early, rockabilly days.

So to marginalize his final years as being little more than a descent into ambivalence and irrelevance is to ignore the facts. As these sessions attest, Elvis was recording vibrant performances very nearly up to the end of his life. Not only this, but he was constantly touring, working on new material and generally pushing himself well past the point an icon of his status needed to, his position having long been cemented within popular culture. There was no reason for him to continue touring and recording; he’d long since earned more than he could ever hope to spend in his or many other lifetimes. The mere fact he continued to be a creative force is a testament to his devotion to the music more than anything. It’s the common through line that ties all facets of his career together: his unabashed love of and passion for the music around him.

From his earliest days appropriating the sound of black musicians to his final years reimagining pop hits, Elvis served as a sieve through which the music around him flowed. And while there have been many others who have taken on the work of others, very few have taken on the work of others and made it their own, putting their own indelible stamp on well-known material. This was something Elvis was the master of, as evidenced by his late-period live recordings and, as is the case with the newly issued collection Way Down in the Jungle Room, still commanded an audience.

The disco groove of “Moody Blue", a song that manages to channel both the then thriving genre, bubblegum hooks and earnest lyrical sentiments. Elvis’ impassioned performance helps fully sell what could otherwise come off as a weak attempt at continued relevance. Instead it maintains an impressive vibrancy that saw the single rich #1 on the country charts and an impressive #31 on the pop charts in a year dominated by Saturday Night Fever.

Fittingly, disc one concludes with bittersweet “The Last Farewell", a Roger Whittaker/Ron Webster composition recorded during the February 1976 session and released on the From Elvis Boulevard album later that same year. It’s a gorgeously nuanced performance that shows Elvis to be a far better interpreter and vocalist than he is often given credit for, the subtleties masked by the occasionally overwrought production and shag carpet arrangements that help firmly date-stamp these performances.

And while all of the material collected here is impressive, there is nothing new for collectors. Instead, this set is designed to collect all of the recordings Elvis and company made over two different sessions in the fabled Jungle Room. Delivered piecemeal over the years, much of the material is culled directly from the 1976 release From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee -- an allusion to his home studio setup in the Jungle Room -- and 1977’s Moody Blue. Even the bonus disc of outtakes, studio chatter and other fans-only ephemera features material previously released elsewhere. More than anything this simply goes to show just how prolifically anthologized Elvis’ recorded output has been. And with seemingly little to nothing left unheard, the only options left seem to be the remastering of existing takes and, as is the case here, a roughly chronological look at the final recording sessions of arguably the most revered performer pop music has ever seen.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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