Elvis Presley’s music and personality have had strong influences on 20th century pop culture, and that’s reason enough to wonder about his place in history. But I’m particularly interested in comeback stories and the career process of a pop star. You can only be the face of youth culture for so long before changing tastes push you aside. Then what?
The music industry does not forgive these inevitable growing pains. Sometimes artists find a compelling middle ground between an act of nostalgia and complete disappearance. Most are not that lucky. Most don’t have Presley’s talent or charisma either. Oh, what could it be?
The Paramount+ documentary “Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback” offers a clue as to how Presley might have steered his career if things had turned out differently, namely if he had saved him from his domineering manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was intent on killing him. . to keep the money train moving at the expense of anything resembling artistic satisfaction for its client.
The mantra of the youth of that time was “Do not trust anyone over 30”. And Presley, at 33 by those standards, was trying to make his claim by returning to television for the first time in ten years. Producer and director Steve Binder played an important role in shaping the 1968 NBC special, and his sarcastic and realistic memories formed the backbone of the documentary.
Binder had no problem ignoring many of Parker’s solemn ideas, and that was fine for Presley – someone who could finally stand up to the irresistible Parker. (Presley certainly wouldn’t!) He was wary though, telling Binder he didn’t want to work in television because that wasn’t his field. That didn’t bother the director: “’Elvis, what’s your field?’ I said. And he said, ‘My field is recording.’ And I said, ‘Great’. You make a recording and I’ll put pictures on it.’”
And what pictures were these? Elvis, in a tight-fitting black leather suit, performs on stage to a small but captivated audience. Images disable it because it is sincere and spontaneous emotion. Inspired by the late-night concert seasons Presley hosted in his dressing room after rehearsals, Binder decided to recreate some of that looseness and informality for the camera. The simplified aesthetic is a clear precursor to “MTV Unplugged,” but they are only part of a much longer (and more traditionally shot) TV show shot on a soundstage with sets, costume changes, and background dancers.
Presley stepped into the ’60s after a two-year stint in the Army, organized by Parker as a way to reset the singer’s personality and make her more attractive to a wider (aged) audience. But by the end of the decade, his career had turned into a series of mediocre films. The documentary devotes a lot of time to movies, filtering by the music he released in those years, such as “Are You Alone Tonight?”, “Surrender”, “Now Or Never”, “I Can’t Help Fall In Love”. and “Return to Sender” are among them. It is true that his musical production mostly depends on his films, but he also recorded a few gospel albums during this period. In other words, it had fallen, but it wasn’t quite outside.
Still, popular music had moved on without him. The top five albums of that year in 1968 were The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. Presley was outdated. But he still had enough name and charm that NBC would put together a TV show around him to air just before the Christmas holidays.
John Scheinfeld, who directed the Paramount+ documentary, has a long project résumé that boils down popular culture figures of the 20th century, including Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra, to their core. But by focusing on only a few months of Presley’s career, he created a rich portrait not only of the singer but of the era itself.
Presley was nervous when it came time to take the stage. This was obvious to everyone behind the scenes, but also because the dancers (who was interviewed here portraying the long-legged blonde Elvis poked her nose at in the brothel scene) and at least one audience member had managed to track down Scheinfeld. This nervousness and visibly sweat find a way to humanize Presley in unexpectedly interesting ways, making the situation even more exciting as his old self-confidence comes back. But the title of Scheinfeld’s documentary is a bit of a misnomer. Presley did not reinvent himself. But for a short time, he and Binder found a way for their abilities to make sense and pop off the screen once again, even in the context of the psychedelic ’60s.
Not because it’s stuck. Presley remained in Parker’s bubble thereafter, and the final years of his career – the Vegas years – live on as a novelty in modern memory. It still drew crowds. Big crowds. However, he did not live up to the promise of energy and relevance that he and Binder caught on that special TV show.
In 1968 Presley was renting a house in Beverly Hills with his wife, Priscilla, and their newborn daughter, Lisa Marie. According to Binder, he said not everyone wants to be swamped with traffic every day—at least that’s the official story—so he placed a bed in the dressing room and lived in the studio. It’s a way to focus on work. The documentary does not dwell on this, but I could not stop thinking about it. What a choice it is to live on the other side of town, away from your wife and newborn baby. The couple married only a year ago and divorced in 1973. Four years later, Elvis died at just 42 years old.
While watching the movie, the question kept running through my mind: If the ’68 special was made for NBC, why is this documentary aired on Paramount+ instead of NBC’s Peacock? Another mystery of our current TV moment. Earlier this year, NBC aired an homage to one-time CBS star Carol Burnett, so we can call it balancing the (nostalgia) scales.
“Reinventing Elvis: ’68 Comeback” — 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Paramount+
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.