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Saturday, September 9, 2023

Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback: An Appreciation

I just saw Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback.  The new documentary, narrated by Steve Binder -- about Elvis Presley's Comeback Special that aired on NBC back on December 3, 1968, directed by Steve Binder -- has been streaming on Paramount Plus since August 15, 2023.  The documentary did for me and my appreciation of Elvis what Peter Jackson's masterpiece The Beatles: Get Back did for me about The Beatles.  Except The Beatles since the first time I heard (and saw) them on The Jack Paar Program in January 1964 have always been much higher in my estimation, more prominent in my life and love of music, at the pinnacle of that, in fact, than was and now is Elvis.  But Peter Jackson's documentary both reaffirmed and lifted my connection to The Beatles, and Steve Binder's documentary did the same for me for Elvis, albeit at very different levels.

I saw The Beatles: Get Back the night the first third of the documentary went up on Disney Plus.  Why did I wait weeks to see Reinventing Elvis?  Well, I guess that's just another indication of the difference between The Beatles and Elvis Presley in my life.  I did see the Comeback Special when it aired on NBC on December 8, 1968.  I was in the recording studio the next day, recording a demo of a song I had written with Ed Fox -- "Sunday Princess" -- with a singer whose name was Joey Ward.  We talked about how superb Elvis was on that special.  Joey said he was so taken with it, he was going to start combing his hair like Elvis.  I remember laughing to myself, and later telling Ed I would never do that.  I was happy with my long straggly hair and moustache.  Another example of the difference between my appreciation of The Beatles and Elvis.

But Elvis was the best he ever was in that special -- better than what I'd seen of him on The Ed Sullivan Show a decade earlier and better than most of his movies (though I think Jailhouse Rock is a great movie and a really great song, and the same for Viva Las Vegas (well, certainly the song, though Ann-Margret was nonpareil in the movie).  You don't see or hear any mention of that song or the movie in Reinventing Elvis, but the documentary is a nearly continuous explosion of powerful and beautiful performances.

My favorite part of the documentary, other than those performances, is a sequence which Binder tells us the geniuses at NBC cut from the 1968 special, the bordello scene, which was too erotic for NBC's censors, and is hot even by today's standards.  The sexual energy between Elvis and one of the women dancers is palpable and realistic, which is exactly what a documentary should be.

Another scene that caught my eye is seen earlier in the film.  Elvis is walking through a crowd, smiling, but as he turns his expression briefly changes to sheer dislike.  Who was Elvis looking at?  It's tempting to think it was Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's notorious manager, who we learn in the documentary was not a Colonel and not named Tom Parker, either.  He's literally identified as the villain in the movie, and I do recall how Elvis said it broke his heart when the Colonel refused to let him play the male lead in the 1976 movie A Star Is Born.  Kris Kristofferson got the role, and Elvis died a year later.  Reinventing Elvis barely tells us why Elvis didn't once and for all break free of the ersatz Colonel -- he was a "father figure" to Elvis -- and confined himself to defying the Colonel only when he had a strong person like Binder at his side.

If you ever liked any of Elvis' work, definitely see Reinventing Elvis.  You'll like it and appreciate it and understand it and Elvis even more.

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