Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) went to collect his pay from his construction job one day and headed straight for the nearest bar, but once there he angered another of the patrons by buying a drink for his girlfriend after she asked him to. The irate patron began pushing the woman around and Vince stepped in, then things quicky became heated and the man was punched to the ground. The result? Vince goes to prison for manslaughter, which for many people would be the end of any promising career, yet for him, once he meets his cellmate Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), is the start of something big...
Jailhouse Rock was Presley's third film and one of his biggest hits, an edgier version of his previous effort Loving You, yet it was one he never saw thanks to a tragedy connected with it when his female lead, Judy Tyler, died in a car accident mere days after completing her scenes; for Elvis, it was just too upsetting to contemplate sitting down to watch it, thus even though it featured perhaps his most famous song and dance number he couldn't face it. Tyler played Peggy Van Alden, a juke box rep who Vince meets after getting released and they're both so good for each other that they manage to make something of his budding music career.
Before that happens we have the prison scenes which offer Vince that bad boy allure Elvis was cultivating for the picture, or at least was being cultivated for him by the studio, so throughout the story when he's not actually being nice to someone, he's biffing people or acting surly or impetuously getting into arguments and generally acting all mercenary in a way more befitting his notorious manager Colonel Tom Parker than his more polite self. Still, this wasn't totally out of his range, and though he never thought of himself as much of an actor, as a screen icon he worked up some credible semblance of a performance here, at least seeming more engaged with the role than he would in many of his sixties flicks.
Those prison sequences are where he learns from ex-country singer Hunk (doesn't Shaughnessy remind you of Butch, the eternal rival of Droopy in those cartoons?) how to sing and play guitar, and such is Vince's natural talent that he is a sensation on a nationwide TV broadcast showcasing convict talent (really). Which he doesn't know till he's released, the warden and Hunk keeping his fan mail from him until he's walking out the door, but when he does read it (we hear a "fifteen-year-old" aficionado's letter in voiceover - steady, Elvis) he is inspired to see if he can make something of himself in the business they call show. This means a chance meeting with Peggy, and a lot of trouble and heartache before success comes a-knocking.
After suffering such indignities as another, more famous singer covering his song and burying his version, Vince and Peggy decide to start their own label and what do you know? He's a hit with the public for real this time, translating into record sales, personal appearances, movie contracts, and so on, but his relationship with Peggy is such that he cannot admit it's she he loves and needs to get by, treating her so badly that when she accuses him of cheap tactics to steal a smooch, he replies immortally, "That ain't tactics, honey. It's just the beast in me!" But what of that title number so celebrated? It's actually a terrible, corporate nineteen-fifties concept of how to present rock 'n' roll, amusing but illustrating how far the establishment was from "getting" what it was all about - the sound of the added brass section and the backing dancers calling "RRROOOCK!" just spoils what is a stone cold classic, even if Elvis obviously hadn't taken a good listen to those lyrics. Maybe it was a mixed gender jailhouse?