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ROCK ‘N’ ROLL DISCIPLES (1984)

Americans are believers.

The emotional comforts of fiction and the psychic fuel of wishing are, ironically, both our common cultural trait and the wedge that keeps the nation out of unity.  The United States’ highly-touted Freedom of Choice is most frequently exercised by its citizens in Choosing To Believe:  to believe pundits, conspiracy theories, articles of faith, optimistic scenarios, etc., in order to craft a raison d’être.

These cognitive truces inside the American mind don’t necessarily damn the shortcomings of the educational system, but instead say a lot about the psychic need to grasp any sort of security and support within the industrialized nation that gives its populace the fewest guarantees in life.

Tom Corboy’s 1984 video documentary ROCK ‘N’ ROLL DISCIPLES [released on VHS home video by the more psychotronic and less definitive title of MONDO ELVIS] explores these needs, and the accompanying beliefs held among some of the more extreme fans of Elvis Presley.  These are people who see the head of Elvis in cloud formations, who feel that since “ELVIS” is an anagram for “LIVES” that Elvis can’t be dead, who petition the Vatican to make Elvis the first Protestant saint.

Despite the editorial temptation to judge or condescend, this work displays a filmmaker’s integrity.  The greatness in this half-hour independent video is in its presentation:  no voice-over narration, no interviewer’s questions on the soundtrack.  The camera records confessions, revelations, intimacies, all articulated by the speakers in the most unshakable type of first-person speech:  testimony without analysis.

Thoughtfully-selected visuals (the product of both a good producer’s research and the magical luck of having the camera rolling at the right moment) support the reality expressed by the believers:  Elvis vigils, Elvis impersonators, Elvis souvenirs.  In cutting away from the talking-heads, Corboy shows the viewer that the obsessions and claims of the interviewees are not just manufactured in the realms of social isolation, but are part of a larger, wider wave of emotion and faith that’s visible in our landscape.

Tech-wise, this work is another testament to the fast, cheap and out-of-control liberation that came with the introduction of good quality portable video gear in the early ‘Eighties.  Watching ROCK ‘N’ ROLL DISCIPLES can fire up the latent filmmaker in each of us:  you want to grab a camera and start asking people questions and let their reality unreel before the lens.  But this video’s simplicity is deceptive.  Speaking as someone who has worked on over 400 documentaries of varying length and format, I’m deeply impressed with Corboy’s ability to place the interviewees at ease so they could speak so candidly of their lives and their psychic connections to Elvis.  Also, the videography has the fearlessness necessary for good documentary work.  It’s this tightrope walk between sensitivity and aggression that makes a documentary deliver the way this one does.

Still, the spectre that is hardest to shake off from the experience of watching ROCK ‘N’ ROLL DISCIPLES is how the confessions of these Elvis disciples address the Motherless Child in all of us.  Their desire for communion, for unshakable bonds, speaks to those hollow places in our lives that seem never to be filled.  It sometimes can seem as if there is a philosophical choice in existence between actions such as loving Elvis and the alternative of gazing into a yawning, existential chasm.  Perhaps these folks made the right choice.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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4 Comments to “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL DISCIPLES (1984)”

  1. Marilyn says:

    I find questions of belief as fascinating as they are to, well, believe. I never met a statement I didn’t want verified, but I’d like to get with the program of blind faith sometimes, if only to relieve the anxiety of living on the thin line of truth in a mendacious world. This sounds fascinating, and your expertise in pointing out the technical strengths in the form of the documentary echo my own opinion that documentaries are best when they let the subjects speak for themselves. Thanks again for another great find!

  2. Marilyn says:

    … they are “hard” to believe, that is.

  3. Doug says:

    “the thin line of truth in a mendacious world” — man, that says it all! I’ll treasure that phrase.

  4. Russell says:

    I think Marilyn’s phrase memorably captures so much about our cultural situation. I have a Hieronymus Bosch-like visual of her “thin line” as a tightrope over a chasm filled with ingenuous Elvis disciples, disingenuous political pundits and twisted religious fanatics. If we give up and jump off, we might be able to choose our blind-faith bliss. Perhaps. If we fall off, can we choose which group subsumes us?

    Thanks, Doug!

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