They were playing the Elvis channel at the dentist the other day, and I got infected by a Nancy Sinatra-sounding cut I probably should have heard before but hadn't: "Rubberneckin'." (I still can't get it out of my head.) And when I tracked it down later, it turned out to have come from Elvis's last movie (though it was recorded for his '68 comeback album), Change of Habit, a 1969 Mary Tyler Moore vehicle (until Elvis came on board) about three nuns who work as civilians in a South Bronx clinic. One of them (MTM) falls for the clinic doctor, a streetwise sometime-singer from Shelby County, Tenn., and then has to choose (quite literally) between Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley (playing a character named Dr. John--wait for it--Carpenter: maybe it's not a choice at all!).
Streamable on Netflix? Check. How could I not make it (or at least the first half-hour) my lunchtime entertainment? But what a thrillingly weird cultural document it turned out to be: on one hand a cheesily implausible Elvis showcase, including an upstairs house party performance of "Rubberneckin'" (see below), on the other a "gritty" social drama, played mostly straight, that could have been made at no other time than those hopeful and freaked-out years when the '60s ended and the '70s began. Autism, Vatican II, urban poverty, predatory pricing, abortion and rape jokes, ... and "Rubberneckin'"! It's like The Love Boat deciding to dock for an episode at Port-au-Prince instead of Puerto Vallarta.
Not that anyone needs me at this late date to point to the depths of pop culture, but to call it merely cheesy does it a disservice (or is a reminder of the complex flavors and varieties of cheese). It's complexities are not the same as, say, "Benito Cereno," but a work like this is such a tangle of culture that you feel like you could pull on any strand (say, when Elvis says to Barbara McNair, "I've been all of those things except black") and eventually yank out almost all of 20th-century America. I'm starting to imagine a tasty course syllabus: Change of Habit, Midnight Cowboy (a studio exec apparently wrote to John Schlesinger, "If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley"), Sesame Street, Sweet Charity, Putney Swope, The Exorcist...
Here are the first 10 minutes, including a nun striptease during the credits and the great "Rubberneckin'," which is our first glimpse of Dr. Carpenter, although if you want to go straight to the song start here.
Am I right in guessing it wasn't intentional to cut between Elvis's anthem to checkin' out the ladies and the nuns getting harassed by the locals on Washington Street?