If you listen to the Beatles a lot on Pandora like my family, then perhaps you have heard of Love, a soundtrack remix album of Beatles music from the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name. The show, which has been running since 2006, has a great soundtrack which succeeds in skillfully remixing popular Beatles songs into new medleys and mash-ups. Love crafts something new without ever removing the essence of what people love about the music of the Beatles.
In 2010 Cirque du Soleil attempted to recreate the success of their Beatles-themed show with an Elvis Presley-themed show called Viva Elvis. Viva Elvis only lasted 2 years before it was closed in 2012 due to low attendance records, so it’s understandable if you’ve never heard of this show; I only recently discovered it myself.
It was while browsing YouTube that I found ElvisPresleyVEVO. This was the first sign that something here was off; VEVO was created in 2009, more than 3 decades after Elvis’ death. Nevertheless, ElvisPresleyVEVO is a real account and it even features “Elvis Presley’s official music videos.” I decided to watch the “official” music video for “Suspicious Minds” which was a number one hit song by Elvis in 1969. Immediately, I was aware that this was not the “Suspicious Minds” that I knew nor was it the version that topped the charts in 1969. For the most part, Elvis’ vocals are kept the same, but the instrumentation of the track is totally changed. It sounds like Elvis if he was backed by a U2 cover band. I did a little research and found that this “Suspicious Minds” is a remixed version of the song from Viva Elvis. After this, I had to learn more about this show and its soundtrack.
Love was done so well, so why did Viva Elvis turn out so lackluster? Well for one, the producers of Love had real talent and experience. Legendary producer George martin and his son Giles Martin worked on Love. George Martin has been referred to as “the fifth beatle” by the Beatles themselves. He produced much of the Beatles’ catalogue, including Revolver, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Help!, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His son, Giles Martin, went on after Love to produce the fantastic 50th anniversary remaster of Sgt. Peppers, which came out earlier this year. There could be nobody more qualified than these two for the task of making a new Beatles soundtrack.
But who produced Viva Elvis? It must be somebody very qualified, perhaps a person who knew Elvis or worked with him. Nope, Viva Elvis was produced by Erich Van Tourneau, whose production credits include nothing prior to Viva Elvis. In fact, the only albums he has worked on besides Viva Elvis are Now That’s What I Call Music! 36 and Bossa Nova Baby! The Ultimate Elvis Presley Party Album, which came out after Viva Elvis and features several of the same songs. It seems that Van Tourneau was barely qualified to be the producer of a tribute to the life and music of Elvis Presley.
With Viva Elvis Tourneau tries to make Elvis Presley contemporary. He includes various elements from a range of musical genres in the album, including punk, alternative, hip hop, blues, and soul. The problem is that in imagining what Elvis would be like if he appeared as a new artist in 2010, Tourneau loses sight of what makes Elvis timeless. Adding vocal effects and record scratches might have seemed cutting edge and cool in 2010, but in 2016 these features just date the music. Much like many of the pop songs featured on Now That’s What I Call Music! 36, Viva Elvis has not aged well. The production is so cheesy and over the top. Also, there is no subtlety in the message of the album. For example, ham-fisted audio clips that appear throughout the album tell us how great Elvis Presley was. We know he was great, that’s why people still listen to his music today. Instead of telling us how fantastic he was, they should have let his music speak for itself. But that is the fundamental flaw of Viva Elvis: it has been altered so much that it no longer feels like the music Elvis Presley. These are not the songs that you know and love. Perhaps young children who are not familiar with Elvis Presley might be able to rock out to these songs, but I think seasoned fans will find it hard to forget the original versions.
The opening song “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (The 2001 theme) makes it clear right off the bat what the overall experience of the album will be. Audio of screaming fans and strange clips of Elvis laughing are layered in with a repetitive drum beat. This was probably meant to be an exciting build up into the start of the show and the next song, but it sounds more like a descent into hell. The laugh sounds so unnatural and unsettling out of context, like Elvis is hysterically laughing to himself. Perhaps if there was a joke or a statement that made him laugh, it wouldn’t sound so odd.
After a countdown, the first track transitions right into the second track “Blue Suede Shoes” which is my least favorite track here. This song features all of the elements that make the album as a whole so painful to endure. It kicks off with a generic guitar riff that sounds like a Rolling Stones rip-off. Then a filter is briefly added onto the vocals that makes it sound like Elvis is singing through a payphone. About halfway through the song, it devolves into a record-scratch breakdown complete with random “whoos” and undecipherable words looped over and over again. I hope you like to hear Elvis make incoherent sounds, because then you’ll love the album. After that finishes, the song switches gears again, this time sounding briefly like the hit “Gonna Make You Sweat” (Everybody Dance Now) by C & C Music Factory. The song tries to be about 5 things at once and fails at all of them.
To the credit of Tourneau, not every song on Viva Elvis is as bad as “Blue Suede Shoes.” Sherry St. Germain gives a memorable vocal performance on the song “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” although I wish they would have just let her sing the whole song as a cover. Instead, the song is a duet between her and Elvis. This ends up sounding a little awkward, because their voices are very different. There isn’t much of a chemistry between them, which isn’t surprising considering Elvis is not really there for her to interact with. All things considered, she does as well as she can.
In conclusion, Viva Elvis is not horrible in theory. Perhaps with some better talent behind the project, like there was with Love, it could have been less obnoxious and cringe-inducing. The problem is how cheap it sounds. The remixes come across as amateur like fan mash-ups. They mostly had the sense to keep Elvis’ voice as the main focus, but he often sounds out of place. Elvis never fits in with the music that accompanies him on these tracks, which is a shame because he is supposed to be the centerpiece and main attraction of this music. If there is one good thing that comes from Viva Elvis, it’s the confirmation that Elvis is really dead. We can finally lay the conspiracy theories that he faked his death to rest, because if he was alive, he definitely would not have allowed an album like Viva Elvis to be posthumously released in his name.