Every once in awhile we all get "on" and our A-game shines forth like a beacon unto the galaxy, but how many times is this actually captured on film for all to see, for all time? Sure there was young Brando, and James Dean, and Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton, but what about, like, physical prowess, commanding aura, superhuman speed and skill all in one package? When it merges both the focused intense auric brilliance of prime performers like Streetcar Brando with Drunken Master agility and Richard Burton gravitas? Let's take a look at these top five film documents of men rocking it, rollin' it, or punchin' it down.
Elvis Presley in ELVIS: THAT'S THE WAY IT IS (1970)
No one in Las Vegas could have anticipated the glory of Elvis' big comeback tour in 1969. We see a silver fox Cary Grant in the audience, smoking a cigarette and flanked by two beehive hairdo Vegas beauty queens, now what else do you need to know? Sure, the King's monkeying around and struggling to keep a straight face through even his ballads, but just to look at him onstage in that glorious, 70s-heralding stuntsuit, is to see masculinity at its most ferociously loving and beautiful. When he busts out a standard like "Mustang Sally," he warps time itself, like Neo at the end of the Matrix. It's brought tears to me eyes and made me sigh like an orphan looking for a pappy... all is life... and has suddenly found one.
2. Muhammad Ali in WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996) - (Rumble in the Jungle, 1974)
Poor George Foreman. He was a perfectly nice guy and yet the big celebration of African-African American unity in 'the jungle' paraded around him in a wide berth; he was their straw dog and everyone forgot maybe he was also just a guy who never hurt no one, aside from in the ring. But that aside, it's glorious - Ali coasts into Africa like a living God, and then backs that up by performing one of the most poetic bouts in boxing history. For round after round, Muhammad hangs back and just absorbs Foreman's punishment. Then, George all punched out, Ali bursts forth like a lion and pounds him down with the strength of the entire African nation, and yet, somehow, also with love, and Ali knows that if no one else. George is just another boxer, after all, just doing his thing, and look who got the golden grill!!
Every kid in the 1970s knew Bruce Lee was, but we never could see his actual films, unless they came on afternoon TV on "Chop Socky Theater" dubbed and panned and scanned so badly half the time you just see one guy's one eyebrow. By the time it's the late 1980s and you finally get to rent ENTER THE DRAGON, you've basically forgotten all about poor Bruce Lee. But once we get down to his big basement fight around pots of boiling heroin and imprisoned old men in black pajamas, a whole rift in time is opened up and we're back to being wide-eyed, turned-on-by-life 70s godlings instead of worn-down pouffy-haired John Hughes chick-chasing lowlifes.
The most classic scenes involve middle range shots that keeps Bruce in the center of the screen, his eyes unfocused so as to see everywhere at once, looking downwards at the floor in fact, his head cocked, relaxed but puzzled, as if he's trying to remember the line of some old song while waiting for a train, his feet shuffling back and forth like he's doing an admiring parody-homage of Muhammad Ali, or in close-up, bugging his eyes and holding very still, then snapping someone's neck with a loud crunch offscreen. Sure purists sing the praises of the CHINESE CONNECTION over ENTER THE DRAGON, and sure Jet Li and Jackie Chan both may have out-kicked Lee in later films, but it's DRAGON that has the universal appeal. Even if the script borrows heavy from James Bond and Ten Little Maidens, the music is awesome 70s copshow funk and the hero's not afraid to snap every neck in sight.
Poor the Rolling Stones. I also know what it's like (it's exhausting!) to be throwing the party your band is playing at, as happened with Mick, Keith and Company at the shooting of the 1968 TV Special, The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus. At best you bring your B game since you're always half-focused on the cup emergency, the lack of ice, the broken keg pump, the a**-hole townie and frat boy gate crashers and the cops responding to neighbor noise complaints. It's fine to play your B game when all that shit's going on, but if some band you invited to open for you brings their A-Game, well well... well. You end up mayb like the Stones and dot even releasing this hour long TV show for a few decades, and most rock fans believe it's because the Stones were just so ashamed--not that they played particularly badly, but they were just so outgunned. The Who were just those guns!
I've also seen how being in a band among bands makes you very insecure and that can bring out either your best or your worst in a performance, depending on how drunk you were the previous evening; I've been around, is what I'm getting at, and I can assure you there's no finer rock moment in the history of the universe than this performance of "A Quick One While He's Away." I've never been much of a Who fan. But I'm a huge gushing fan of this, and especially the madman dervish insanity of Keith Moon. Not only is "A Quick One" a great mini-opera all in itself, it's also about forgiveness, a soft spot.
5. Tom Cruise as Les Grossman: MTV Music Awards 2010 / Tropic Thunder
I don't know much about theater, but I have worn big padded clothing and had to dance around on a hot stage under blazing spot lights, so I know what it is to sweat like a withdrawal-stricken junkie (for that and other reasons too). So when I saw Tom Cruise in a huge fat suit hadn't even broken a sweat after an amazing, hilarious dance session with Jennifer Lopez (who came in halfway through the song and was still sweating, even wearing next to nothing, by the end) then I knew I could finally finish this entry, as I'd been waiting for quite a few years.
Presumably a loose caricature of the late, hairy-chested producer Don Simpson--who helped launch Tom Cruise's career with TOP GUN--Grossman is the first truly Lacan-Lynchian example of grotesque over-enjoyment to make it to the MTV, and much Lacanian Ink could be spilled over the rich eloquence of Grossman's connection to such other anal fathers as: BLUE VELVET's Frank; STAR WARS' Jabba the Hut, and APOCALPYSE NOW's Colonel Kurz. Add them together and Cruise is Don Rickles and William Demarest welded to Sammo Hung and the cocaine-enhanced militarism of John Milius. Can you handle it?
A good performance shows the terrifying green headed fury of Oz and the gentle merry charlatan behind the curtain, simultaneously. Is this not the purpose of Brecht, Godard and bad horror movies, to express our deepest anxieties in such a form as we can laugh at them and realize death is not the end. If theater be at all a model of the cosmos, don't all severed soldiers once the day's dying's done return, corpse-like at first, then as a butterfly, until mom calls them in for dinner or the show gets canceled? Cruise as Grossman is the butterfly-chrysalis that Charlize Theron and Aileen Wuronos conceived in MONSTER and the 2003 Academy Awards, rolled and unrolled until a seamless J. In the words of D. Boon: "Our band could be his songs / I'm his soldier child."