Elvis ’68

The Elvis ’68 Comeback Special (theatrical version)

How obtained: I bought a ticket, about $15

Bias: None

This was a very spur-of-the-moment choice for a review, which is probably a good thing, since I’ve been knocking my head against a wall trying to figure out what to review first.

I’d never seen all of this before – just clips here and there. To situate it somewhat in time and in the life of Elvis Presley…well, I can’t go through the entire story of Elvis Presley. There are plenty of books. I recommend the two volumes by Peter Guralnick. OK,  Elvis is famous, goes into the Army, comes out of the Army, and his schtick drek (Yiddish: piece of shit) manager, Col. Tom Parker, puts him in an endless string of terrible movies where he has to sing an endless string of terrible songs. These movies are often referred to as “travelogues,” because they are basically the same story in a different setting.

Someone has a very fine idea to make a one-hour TV special where Elvis gets back to basics. After this 1968 special, alas, the Vegas years start, and all the drugs, and the white spangly outfits, and the overweight, and he’s dead within ten years. So Elvis ’68 is just a lovely little pause where a more genuine Elvis than had been seen since the Army comes out to play, if only for an hour.

The parts I had already seen were from the “jam session” segments, where Elvis and his musicians just sat around with acoustic instruments and played some of his oldies. And there is indeed magic in these segments. Elvis is relaxed, unselfconscious, and actually seems to be enjoying himself. And there are moments where he opens his mouth, and “Elvis” comes out: that sweet, handsome, young man with that powerful voice. Where was he hiding all that time?

Elvis wears a custom-made leather suit for these segments. In one of the books I read about him – I wish I could remember which one, and I wish I could remember if the author said this or was quoting someone else – Elvis as described as being “as thin as a rake, and as handsome as ten movie stars.” Truer words were never spoken. He looks healthy and tanned (remember when “tanned” looked healthy?), his weight is just right, he has energy, his skin is clear…he just looks like Perfect Elvis.

Unfortunately, the ’68 special is loaded with several dreadful “production numbers.” There was no escaping that shit in the ‘60s, I guess. The gospel one is the least bad; Presley explains that a lot of his music is rooted in gospel, and then there’s a gospel song and African-American people doing weird modern dance and such. ‘60s TV, particularly variety shows, had a lot of this kind of nonsense, themed song-and-dance segments that were painful to watch. Another one was based around the song “Guitar Man,” where Elvis goes from town to town on a neon road. One town has a nightclub and someone breaks his guitar. There’s one with a lot of pretty girls dancing around him. There’s one where he has to save a pretty girl from a tough guy (some sanitized version of whore and pimp); this one has the redeeming quality of Elvis’ singing a snatch of “Big Boss Man,” though of course it is lip-synced. And there’s a portion where he fights off a bunch of guys who come at him one at a time, Bruce-Lee-style, while he sings. Bad, bad, bad.

Since the special was only an hour, including commercials, the makers of this release added on an end portion with bloopers, and a beginning portion where the director of Elvis ’68 chats awkwardly with Priscilla Presley. Priscilla has had so much work done and/or so much botox that her mouth hardly moves when she speaks.

I wish it were all the jam session. The jam session rocked. But it did provide a lovely glimpse into Elvis, a mature performer who was not yet his own worst enemy.

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