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Burn Movie Review

Sizzlingly Odd
In his debut feature, writer/director Mike Gan has created a small film that, if there's justice, will attain a cult-like status. "Burn" takes place in the course of one evening and entirely within the confines of a rural, out-of-the-way gas station shop.
It's the kind of place that loners might wander into for a hot cup of coffee at 3am. Obviously this is not a big budget film, but Gan squeezes an awful lot of goodness out of it. Maybe we should call it badness.

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Elvis Presley - Live 1969 Music Album Reviews

In 1969, Elvis Presley went to Las Vegas to reboot his career. With a half-century of hindsight, the performances feel both bittersweet and anticlimactic.

In the summer of 1972, Elvis Presley released “Burning Love,” a soaring number written by Dennis Linde. Despite the song’s frisky sensibility, the supposed King of Rock and Roll sounds exhausted as he strains to hit the notes. The song was his last Top 10 single in the United States. Nearly five years to the day from its release, Presley was expiring alone on a bathroom floor.


But before “Burning Love” lit up the charts for the King one last time, Presley re-launched his music career with 29 shows at the Las Vegas International Hotel in the swelter of August 1969. Recordings of 11 consecutive performances from the tail end of that run are stitched together in a new 50th anniversary box set, Live 1969. With Woodstock, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Doors, and David Bowie also receiving the golden-anniversary treatment this year, the 11-disc Presley collection only adds to the nostalgic bloat. But it also offers a peculiar opportunity to put one of pop music’s all-time megastars under the microscope.

As Presley explains every night, the Vegas appearances were his first live shows in nearly nine years, having occupied the previous decade with his film career and Army draft obligation. Throughout the run, he was backed by a massive ensemble that included his core five-piece band, a full orchestra, and two groups of backup vocalists: the Imperials and the Sweet Inspirations. In a brief August 1969 essay about the spectacle, rock critic Ellen Willis described Presley as “a grown man in black bell-bottoms, tunic, and neckerchief, devoid of pout and baby fat, skinny, sexy, totally alert, nervous, but smiling easily.” He was ready to reign again, and 2,000 people a night were ready to receive him.

Listening to all 13 hours of Live 1969 is ridiculous thing to do, but the time investment exposes the collection’s biggest shortcoming. The most magical live recordings highlight moment-to-moment chemistry between a band’s players, with each new arrangement shaped by circumstances of space and time—not to mention the sobriety and moods of the personnel and their audiences. Spontaneity can unspool hidden nuances in a deep cut or inject fresh energy into an old favorite. But the strategic nature of a nothing-but-hits Vegas show leaves little room for any of the non-Presley performers to show off their own impressive chops. Still, the band consistently rallies for the then-unreleased “Suspicious Minds,” which Willis reported as a late-set highlight.

The kinds of delights that stand out on most bootlegs are buried on Live 1969. They’re there: the haunting operatic filigrees a backup singer adds to each edition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” an especially hard-boogieing dinner-show iteration of “Suspicious Minds,” the way the drummer pummels the floor toms on every “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” medley, some fine honky-tonk piano in a midnight kickoff of “Blue Suede Shoes.” Though he’d issued plenty of hit records by 1969, Presley sticks to near-identical set lists of guaranteed crowd-pleasers, plus a nightly nod to the Beatles with a medley of “Yesterday” and the coda from “Hey Jude.” Listening to every performance in order feels like a game of Spot the Difference for dedicated Elvis obsessives.

While his band may have been seasoned professionals, Presley’s moods range from lovable scamp to frazzled kook, making for a colorful display of the singer’s profoundly weird character. One need not go far to get an idea of Presley’s eccentricities, but it’s still surprising to hear them fall from his curled lips. Like most busy performers, he repeats his yarns from one show to the next. He marvels at the Showroom’s “li’l funky angels” and “weirdo dolls on the walls” and makes liberal use of the phrase “woolly booger” to describe everything from his bandmates to actual boogers. All the while, Presley snorts and sniffles an alarming amount of phlegm, peppering in urgent hisses of “Back! Back!” and “Whassat?” amid clicking noises and requests for “wawa.”

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Some of Presley’s ad-libbed asides, however, can be laugh-out-loud funny. Noting Las Vegas’ desert conditions, Presley remarks that he’s so parched it feels like “Bob Dylan slep’ in ya mouth”; at another show, he informs the audience of “a little bitty dead lizard” sharing his stage. He distributes innumerable cartoonish wet smacks to ecstatic women demanding kisses. He tweaks the memorable refrain of “Heartbreak Hotel” into an even more memorable, “I get so horny I could die.” Whether these outbursts are a result of drugs or just Presley’s natural state is indiscernible.

Aside from the extemporaneous musings, Live 1969’s sprawl offers little new insight about Presley’s life, mind, or music. According to the fine print in the liner notes, most of this material has already been issued piecemeal in some form already, some as recently as 2013. Presley’s Vegas residency was designed to propel his career into a new era, but the show-by-show repetition of the Live 1969 recordings stalls their momentum. Presley had no way of knowing that his comeback would fail within a decade; with a half-century of hindsight, listening to Live 1969 feels both bittersweet and anticlimactic.

Despite their length, the interchangeable sets of Live 1969 merely skim the surface of Presley’s odd inner life and taxing career, the twin engines that would hurtle him toward disaster. In 2019, Presley has been dead for 42 years—the same number he spent alive—and his shadow still looms over the world’s models of pop stardom. What remains to learn from Elvis? What’s left to parse in the ten thousandth recording of “Don’t Be Cruel,” in his career-long marriage of lust and loneliness, in the way he pontificates on li’l funky angels and woolly boogers? In a way, consuming Live 1969 in its entirety feels like a hint of what it might’ve been like to be Elvis Presley: intemperate, self-indulgent, and more than a little surreal.

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