Sunday, June 24, 2007

TV/Music: Elvis ’68 Comeback Special

I can only hope that fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches taste fantastic, and that Elvis Presley enjoyed every one. Because eating them didn’t do the King any favors. Poor dining habits did more than end Elvis’s life. They went a long way toward erasing his legacy. Much of an entire generation knows only the Fat Elvis, the cartoon Elvis, the punchline Elvis.

That’s largely how I knew Elvis, too. The only one of his movies I’d seen in its entirety was Viva Las Vegas, and that was due to the presence of Ann-Margret.

Then, one night a few years ago, the restored version of the 1970 concert film Elvis: That’s The Way It Is aired on TV. “Think I’ll check out a little E,” I told Rosemarie, putting on the drawl I’d cribbed from legions of bad comics. Rosemarie said she was going to read the newspaper instead. By the second number the paper was down for good and we’d both seen the light: Elvis was one of the great showmen of all time. Not to mention a helluva singer.

And That’s The Way It Is ain’t even Elvis at his peak. For years I’d heard his ’68 Comeback Special described with religious reverence. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had taken the stage while Elvis was off making Kissin’ Cousins and Roustabout. The ’68 special made him relevant again, and in many respects set the stage for his sad decline. I figured it was high time I checked it out.

From the first arresting close-up of Elvis launching into “Trouble” (“If you’re looking for trouble/You came to the right place”), it’s apparent you’re not watching any ordinary TV one-off. No guest stars, no awkward comedy banter. Nothing but Elvis doing what he does best – and thus reintroducing himself to the world – for a solid hour.

It’s an amazingly loose show. When there’s no strap to be found for his guitar during one of the “black leather concert” segments, Elvis stands up anyway and does a rendition of “One Night With You” that’s all the more electrifying for its ad-libbed nature. Production numbers that shouldn’t work, like the gospel medley including jazz ballet or the one that takes place in a “House of the Rising Sun”-style bordello constructed out of leftover bits of the Hee Haw set, become transcendent. (OK, the bordello number isn’t exactly transcendent. It’s still pretty awesome, though.)

By the special’s end, I’d realized three things:

1. Every Elvis impersonator I’ve ever seen sucks. They may capture the obvious – sneer, check, swivel hips, check, rhinestone-bedecked suit, check – but never come close to capturing his essence as a performer or as a man.

2. I am now one with Christian Slater in True Romance. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.

3. I’d seen something more than a pop culture milestone. I’d witnessed, in a small way and almost forty years late, a bit of history.

Miscellaneous: Link

At the Mystery*File blog, Steve Lewis reviews Hollywood Troubleshooter by W. T. Ballard, which may feature the first “studio detective” to appear in fictional form.