Charlie Rogers (Elvis Presley) is a singer who has dreams of making it big, but in the meantime he has to scrape a living in this rural "tea house" which doubles as a bar. He appears every night to perform his songs, but he's a rebellious sort who thinks nothing of winding up his audience, as he does tonight when he sings a ditty called Poison Ivy League to annoy the rich students who have shown up with their girlfriends. They accost him in the parking lot later as he goes out to his motorbike, but did not reckon on Charlie's knowledge of karate and end up worse off from the encounter...
Roustabout is often described as the most underrated of Presley's films, showing up around the time that he was giving up being a serious actor of sorts and moving onto coasting through vehicles designed to sell the soundtrack albums because that's where the money was, no matter the quality of what ended up on celluloid. In truth, this one is curiously balanced between the harking back to James Dean and early Marlon Brando Elvis would try first and the more celebrity based ordinary Joe he would be portraying from then on, pretty much, which if nothing else created a tension in the morally ambiguous character of Charlie.
Not that he ever does anything truly heinous in the role, but there's enough of the bad boy about him for a prickliness to the acting, most notably in the relationship with his love interest Cathy (Joan Freeman); he gets into arguments many times, but the ones with her are the most painful because it's apparent that he should really be treating her better and setting aside his womanising ways. We're supposed to believe Charlie is this type of person because of his orphan background, though you'd be forgiven for missing that, but the antagonism against the world is set out early when he meets Cathy out on the road: he's riding his bike, she's travelling in the back seat of her father's car.
The father being Joe Lean (Leif Erickson from TV's The High Chaparral) who immediately takes a dislike to Charlie and runs him off the road. Our hero is understandably put out at this, and demands recompense, so while the bike is getting repaired and his guitar replaced, Barbara Stanwyck in tough but fair mode as Maggie Morgan steps in with an offer. Why not join her travelling carnival as a roustabout, she's sure she can use him and it would make up for Joe's attitude? Charlie accepts and spends the rest of the movie acclimatising to carny folk in a way reminiscent of another, later film which looked to be based on this: the just as cultish Carny, starring another rock star, Robbie Robertson in the Elvis role. Plus both films are about as good as each other when you get down to it.
Therefore there's ample opportunity for colourful personalities and situations, all of which tend to bring out the best in Presley even if the scenes where he's meant to be evolving into the all round nice guy we know he can be (and he was in his following movies) look like deadweight in comparison to the more active business - and the star knows it. Talking of business, there's an intriguingly Colonel Tom Parker-like character here played by Pat Buttram who is buying up as many carnivals as he can and offering Charlie a Faustian pact for fame in return for his metaphorical soul, something the singer contemplates for a while; as usual Parker is credited as "Technical Advisor", but one wonders what he thought of this character. The songs were not too bad, but not exactly memorable aside from Little Egypt which was for the wrong reasons (though the dancer, Wilda Taylor, is notable for the right reasons), but there were quite a few famous faces in bit parts, Raquel Welch being one with a sarky line to deliver as one of the students. So Roustabout was not terrific overall, but entertaining.