All Ears

August 16 marks the 30th anniversary of the day Elvis Presley left not only the building but this mortal coil. With his audio legacy already reissued 12 ways to Sunday, movie studios are now getting into the game, with Elvismania of epic proportions: Warner, MGM, and Paramount have each released new box sets containing their respective holdings of his Hollywood outings, and Warner upped the ante with stand-alone releases of two concert films and Jailhouse Rock. Not enough? The King-centric cult flick Bubba Ho-Tep is now available in a white jumpsuit-wrapped box.

You don’t have to love the King, though, to want to visit your video store this month. The Roky Erickson doc You’re Gonna Miss Me is hitting stores alongside its limited theatrical release, as is the cultier Music from the Edge of Time, about “the Beatles of Cuba,” Los Zafiros. (As for the Beatles of the rest of the world, the fiction feature The Hours and Times, which speculates about John Lennon’s relationship with manager Brian Epstein, is finally out on disc.)

The catalog mining of concert material continues, with releases devoted to everything from Elvis Costello’s string quartets to Jerry Lee Lewis’s boogie-woogie and Bruce Springsteen’s “Sessions Band” roots project. Ditto for Hollywood musicals from All That Jazz to Cole Porter’s The Pirate (in Warner’s new musicals box).

But smaller companies are rescuing material music fans may be surprised to know still exists: Kino has hours of Josephine Baker boxed up, and a wealth of vintage big-band short films are swinging into stores from Acorn Media (Jumpin’ & Jivin’),and Storyville (Harlem Roots).

The latter company offers an hour-long disc on the underexposed comic-musical genius Spike Jones, whose career was as much Looney Tunes-pranksterism as bandleading. Comedy meets music decades later in Air Guitar Nation, a doc (which won the audience award at SXSW) about competitors in a national championship for unskilled but well-costumed wannabe rock stars.

The most fascinating disc of the moment may be an old BBC film called All My Loving, in which filmmaker Tony Palmer tried to get to the bottom of this new thing called rock ‘n’ roll. While a sober narrator takes a neutral view, the film approaches the subject from a social-interest angle, with concerned elders fretting over the deceptions and seductions of pop music — omigod, the boys in the band lie about their ages to get teenyboppers to like them! — while the musicians themselves try to convince us that they’re real people who don’t deserve to be demonized for entertaining kids.

We see interviews with skinny young boys named Townshend and McCartney, who haven’t gotten so used to fame that they’ve lost the chips on their shoulders; trippy red-and-black footage of Pink Floyd and blurry thru-the-briars glimpses of Donovan; and a scene in which Frank Zappa describes a gig that paired “United States Marines in full-dress uniform with The Mothers,” then recounts the jaw-dropping way this juxtaposition played out. (Zappa later remembers overhearing teenage girls giggling about “the bump” in Mick Jagger’s pants.) It’s a fascinating piece of history interspersed with some live footage most fans will not have seen.

Lastly, a bit of whimsy that requires some effort on the customer’s part. Science is Fiction, a release from the British Film Institute, compiles the magical short films of Jean Painlevé, who in the ‘20s began making science docs like you’ve never seen: a vampire bat stalks a guinea pig to a Duke Ellington beat, octopuses slither like ‘50s sci-fi villains, and liquids crystallize in glorious hues. Science would be worth ordering from overseas for some cinephiles despite the fact that it doesn’t play on normal American DVD players (you need a region-free player to view it), but there’s an added bonus for indie-rock diehards: a second disc in the package, The Sounds of Science, pairs these entrancing silent films with a new soundtrack composed by Yo La Tengo.

Seahorses and YLT may sound like odd bedfellows, but then I never understood how Elvis Presley got cast as a Navajo in Stay Away, Joe.

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