Thursday, May 31, 2018


These two double-DVD sets offer unique views of Presley at important points in his career. The Great Performances is perhaps a misleading name; it is in fact three documentaries covering his career. Two are narrated by his life-long friend George Klein, who met Presley in Grade 8, and was an early supporter as a DJ, staying in touch right up until the King's passing. The third is narrated by Bono, and that one covers the very early Elvis, from his breakthrough as Sun Records until appearing on Ed Sullivan, a tumultuous 12 months. It's more of a standard documentary, while the other two hour-long pieces are basically a bunch of TV and movie performances, interspersed with some home movies, rare footage and even some interview clips. I don't mean to diminish these though, it's fabulous stuff, including lots of important appearances. There's the first-ever TV guest spot, on the Dorsey Brothers program, and then the most controversial, the Milton Berle show which caused all the complaints about his sexy hip-shaking. That led to CBS only filming him above the waste when he appeared on Ed Sullvan the first time.

There's so much Elvis footage, the filmmakers actually ended up doing medleys of the image, combining shots from the '50's onstage with Scotty, Bill and D.J. Fontana, later stuff when the crowds got really busy, right up to Vegas Elvis. Footage, footage, footage. There's Elvis and Priscella's wedding, his parents at the airport as he flies off to join the army, some really interesting news crew stuff of Elvis in court, arrested for punching a guy who was hassling him at a gas station. That's the nice thing about officially-sanctioned films like these, they get all this great stuff that other directors would not have access to. The flip side is that you don't see him in a bad light, but I guess we all know what that was like anyway, he's been the butt of jokes for decades now, and these films are great reminders of his real excellence.

The other collection features the three original Ed Sullivan shows from September 1956 to January of 1957 featuring Elvis as the guest star. Not just the performances, these are the whole shows, from start to finish, including the many commercials for the sponsor, Lincoln/Mercury ("The Big M", as they were calling it). I've seen the Elvis songs lots of times, but never the full shows, so it's kinda cool, watching these dated but fascinating programs. TV shows were still trying to figure out what worked best on the medium, and the Sullivan show simply put everything on. There were the circus acts, Broadway musical snippets, comedians, jugglers, a kid's choir from Ireland, impressionists, clowns, and a dog act. Sadly, there's no Topo Gigio (look him up) but there is Senor Wences, the puppeteer/ventriloquist. Lots of them are somewhat bizarre, the dying gasps of vaudeville, and lots are dull, like the lame Broadway performance. Interestingly, one of the shows feature the debut of one Carol Burnett, who does a pretty decent comedy routine. The famous boxer Sugar Ray Leonard appears, strangely, a week after he lost his championship to an unknown. He'd probably been booked because they figured he'd win, but instead he had to endure the smug advice of Sullivan, a former sports writer who obviously thought he knew something about the fights. And something I'd forgotten or didn't ever know, was that Sullivan himself wasn't hosting the first show where Presley appeared, he was in the hospital, and actor Charles Laughton subbed for him.  And yes, we see Elvis, shot from the waste up, delivering Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender and Hound Dog, by now transformed into a confident, exciting performer who smirks and teases his screaming audience, clearly knowing he owned the world. He'd already had lots of TV exposure, on Steve Allen's show, six times on the Dorsey's, and Berle's as well, so Sullivan didn't make Elvis a star, but that was his biggest appearance to that point. Sullivan learned his lesson with rock and roll stars from that, and made darn sure he got The Beatles a few years later.

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