Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Elvis documentary on HBO

When most people think of Elvis Presley today, they think of this cartoonish character – a walrus with dyed jet black hair stuffed into a laughable white sequined jumpsuit with bell-bottoms attempting karate moves on stage while slurring songs he doesn’t remember. They think of the guy who used to eat entire chocolate cakes and shoot television screens whenever Robert Goulet was on. Or maybe they think back to the younger, strikingly-handsome former teen idol who starred in dozens of idiotic forgettable movies where he sang such classics as “Do the Clam.”

To me that’s one of many tragedies of Elvis Presley; the biggest is that he died at 42.

But you forget that he was an absolute trailblazer, that he single-handedly changed popular culture, and that he was a phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen since. He really was the King of Rock n’ Roll.

Happily, there is a new two-part Elvis Presley documentary that is extraordinary and really profiles the genius and the impact of this once-in-a-lifetime artist. Yes, there have been dozens of documentaries on Elvis, not to mention biopics, biographies, tribute shows, and radio documentaries. But I’ve never seen one that dealt so much into his music, his influences, and how he put it all together to create something utterly new and magic.

What you learn in this documentary is that Elvis didn’t just fall into this success. You see a new side of him – smart, observant, driven, and tireless. The impression he always gave off was that of a polite “aw shucks” country boy. But you find that he was very aware of exactly what he was doing and how it would further his career. I was very impressed.

His life was not charmed. He suffered loss, made a Faustian deal with Colonel Tom Parker who became his Svengali. Elvis made gobs of money but ultimately it was at the expense of his art and soul. The price of fame became isolation, drugs, excess, a tarnished legacy, and eventually an early death.

This documentary takes you back to the purity of his early career with wonderful insightful commentary by performers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty (himself a tragedy).

I’m sure that anyone watching this program, regardless of age, will no longer think of Elvis Aaron Presley as a joke. And everyone should watch it just for that reason.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

29 comments :

McAlvie said...

Sadly, too many are also not aware of how incredibly talented he was. His ballads and gospel recordings are amazing. He was very versatile. Definitely worthy of the hype.

Paul Gottlieb said...

I remember seeing a documentary film covering an Elvis concert in Las Vegas, it was a real revelation. Elvis was involved and in charge of every aspect of that concert, He selected the musicians and the backup singers, he chose the songs and work on the arrangements, he did everything. And he seemed to know every Gospel, Country, Rock and Roll, and Rhythm and Blues song ever written. Any problems he might have been having with his weight, or his personal life didn't matter. He gave 100% of himself on that stage and sent that audience home ecstatic. I was very impressed

Mike Barer said...

Good tip, I want to check it out.

VP81955 said...

Saw Presley in concert at Cole Field House in College Park, Md., in September 1974 -- he was in good form that night, beginning a tour where some of his problems became apparent -- and agree with you he was indeed a revolutionary. His Sun sides are to rock what Louis Armstrong's Hot Five records are to jazz, the bedrock of an entire musical genre. And Presley and Armstrong would each go from there to conquer popular music.

How many remember the '90s ABC series "Elvis," which examined his early '50s years in Memphis? Done with the cooperation of the Presley estate, it was well-done but short-lived, as audiences sadly preferred the caricature.

But listen to "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Mystery Train," his haunting reworking of "Blue Moon" or his covers of R&B hits on his early RCA albums. He was amazing.

Chris G said...

I can't think of anybody since Elvis who recorded in so many different genres of music.

Dave H said...

Elvis died during the production of Mash in 1977. do you remember when it happened and if Harry Morgan ever told you and the cast any good stories about Elvis? they did the movie "Frankie and Johnny" together.

tavm said...

Elvis Presley, along with Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston, are of a unique class: that of a phenominal superstar whose excess was compounded by fame which destroyed them.

Ken Levine said...

Harry Morgan did talk about working with Elvis. Said he was an absolute pleasure. A total pro. Came in on time every morning, knew his lines, was gracious and friendly with everyone on the crew. Harry could not have said more nice things about him.

VP81955 said...

One Elvis "what if": In late 1955, he was ready to leave Sun Records for big money (well, big at the time), and Ahmet Ertegun, whose Atlantic label was the Motown of its day (its stable of R&B hitmakers included Ray Charles, the Clovers, the Drifters, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Willis and so many more) desperately wanted Presley, but couldn't scrape up enough money for Sam Phillips and RCA Victor got him instead.

Would an Elvis on Atlantic, with Ertegun and Tom Dowd handling the musical aspects of his career, been able to withstand Tom Parker's carny instincts? Would Presley, as Atlantic's first white artist of note, have achieved similar success and perhaps lifted his label's fellow artists into further pop success? (This takes nothing away from RCA officials, who through Chet Atkins helped Elvis conquer the pop market.) It's an intriguing thought to ponder.

Anonymous said...

My favorite Elvis is the 60s Black Leather Elvis. Especially when he sings “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. I can see why the girls were swooning. It always made me sad that things went the way they did. He could have done even better thing had he not become “Fat Elvis”.

Pam, St Louis.

Pat Reeder said...

I recorded part one of this during a free HBO weekend on Direct TV. You've made me want to get around to watching it.

I recently saw Wanda Jackson in concert, and she told some great stories about working with and dating Elvis when they were both newcomers touring county fairs and suchlike venues. Speaking of how Elvis knew exactly what he was doing, she said he told her she should stop singing hard country and try rockabilly, and he invited her to his house where he played her some records and taught her how to sing in that style. A lot of fascinating personal stories about his very years are in her new autobiography, "Every Night is Saturday Night."

mhowell said...

My parents went to high school in Memphis in the fifties. The top school was Central High which drew kids from all over the city. Treadwell HS (mom's alma mater) was a middle class neighborhood school. Hume HS was the poor school. Elvis graduated from Hume in '53. My dad lived in the Hume district but because he was a good athlete he was recruited by CHS. Whenever he talks about his school days, dad always takes note of the class difference between him and most of his peers at Central. Had he stayed at Hume he would have graduated a year after Elvis.

I think the relative poverty of his early years fueled Elvis' drive and ambition. It also, sadly, may have accounted for some of his excesses in his later years.

Dixon Steele said...

A friend of mine, an Elvis fanatic, insists that he was never the same after his mother died...

philip said...

With all due respect, to both the King and yourself, I think the Beatles surpassed him in terms of trail-blazing and cultural importance, and that is perhaps what overshadows how truly remarkable Elvis does for those not old enough to remember him. The Mod movement and the strikingly creative music coming out of London in the 60s made Elvis – and guys like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, the "rockers" – sound a little old-fashioned and I think they never recovered, even when more "rock n roll" came back in the 70s under the auspices of The Who and Led Zeppelin, which was heavier.

But listen to Paul McCartney gush about Elvis and other 50s rockers, for instance, and you know that they hugely influenced the influencers. Just my .02. Elvis was a legend, though, no doubt about it – not trying to dismiss him in anyway.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I was in elementary school when Elvis did his "Comeback special" in 1968. I watched it then and I loved it. In fact, I have it on DVD. He was an amazing performer. Over the years Elvis has come in and out of fashion, yet I've always been a fan. Too bad I can't afford cable.
M.B.

David said...

Sounds like the film Paul Gottlieb saw was Elvis Presley - That's the Way It Is. It's essential viewing for everyone who likes Elvis, and if you don't like Elvis then this film might change your mind, as it changed mine.

David Simpson

E. Yarber said...

A fellow was parked across the street just now with his stereo blasting some sort of electronica/rap number at arena-level volume while he took twenty minutes to figure how to get out of his car. While I'm not trying to get into some sort of kids-these-days routine, I couldn't help but be struck by how emotionless the singer was, his relentless flurry of words meant to blend into the mechanical rhythm track rather than use it as a beat.

Elvis, for all his revolutionary effect, was still rooted in the notion of a singer interpreting lyrics. Bing Crosby had been the first major performer to use the new recording technology of his time to create a sense of intimacy rather than shout at the rear seats of the theater, and paved the way for Sinatras and Garlands and Coles and Presleys to make every number as much a sort of short story as a tune. Just as we judge an actor by what they bring to the part beyond merely reciting the lines, the classic singers of the record age were able to create worlds of emotion within a few minutes of music.

It takes a lot of emotional openness to reach those levels (which is why so many of those performers became basket cases), also a great deal of creativity and imagination (which you'd expect in Elvis's case, he being a guy who could claim inspiration from everybody, including Liberace and Captain Marvel Jr.) Like a lot of us, Elvis's range did have its limits (his acting was never on the level of his singing) but he was able to develop those boundaries to immense heights. Even his later embarrassing excesses in music can be regarded as the mistakes of a guy who was giving his all, even if the piece at hand was misguided.

For an encore, I'll try to explain why rolling up your windows doesn't make your car soundproof.

VP81955 said...

Wanda Jackson is a delightful performer and has made many sensational records. Worked with some fine talents too -- Roy Clark was working the D.C.-area country circuit when Wanda recruited him for her touring band, and you can hear him on quite a few of her records, including the 1961 classic "Funnel Of Love."

Liggie said...

My mother is a big fan of Elvis' gospel music. I personally think one of his best songs isn't his early classics, but "Suspicious Minds".

Tom Galloway said...

Don't think I can post an image here, but at last year's San Diego Comic-Con I got a couple of photos of someone who did an excellent job of doing what amounted to Elvis cosplaying as his comics inspiration Captain Marvel Jr.. Ken, if I can post an image (or send you one to post), please let me know.

Mike said...

Friday question: Has the DGA, WGA, SAG, any of the IATSE locals ever taken issue with Netflix putting the closing credits into the upper left corner so that my viewing can be invaded by the Netflix marketing dept? I have a Roku and if I don't manage to click on that window immediately, for anything under feature length I miss half the credits. I find that annoying and a spit in the eye to, especially, below the liners. Is this a lost cause? I DM'd Netflix that Amazon was better in this regard but my tweet was ignored.

gottacook said...

Another Friday question: Often on Frasier, Martin will call Frasier by only the first syllable of his name. How was that spelled in scripts?

Loosehead said...

You never know what you've got till its gone. I was indifferent to Elvis until I saw that movie about the Las Vegas show. Now I miss having him around.

DwWashburn said...

I grew up in rural western Tennessee. My elder sister was a huge Elvis fan so, being a rebellious kid, I decided not to like him.

My first professional job was in Memphis. On August 17, 1977 I was scheduled to work at the convenience store directly across from Graceland. I had to call my district boss and tell him I couldn't get down Elvis Presley Blvd because of the press, police and fans who had learned about Elvis's death the previous day.

As I was bombarded with constant Elvis music and Elvis reflections I began to see what all the fuss was about and am an Elvis fan to this day.

Oh and the HBO documentary was extremely well made.

Sue Dunham said...

OK, what is the name of the doc, and where can I see it?

John in NE Ohio said...

One comment about Elvis being a total pro (according to Harry Morgan). That shouldn't be surprising. While there are exceptions to prove the rule, almost anyone who dominates their field like that is both talented and a hard worker. Doesn't mean they can't be a talented, hard working, professional asshole, so that was definitely good to hear.

Two similar FQs-

Who is the person you worked with who was the biggest surprise when you met them? IE someone who has has a public persona that is not who they really are? Don Rickles is an obvious example - very kind in person, not so much on stage. Adam Sandler is supposed to be a workaholic who plays slackers. There are always stories of (especially women) with an image of an airhead that are very smart. Bob Saget had the wholesome family image going for him as long as you didn't see him doing standup. etc.

Or just someone (like Elvis) who is big enough to coast and/or make everyone wait on them, but was completely respectful to everyone? I know you have commented about some of the people you have worked with previously, but anyone who completely surprised you?

Anonymous said...

A very well done documentary of Elvis, keyed on the anniversary of "Singer Presents Elvis" which taped at the old NBC Burbank in June 1968 ... Lots and lots of rare audio heard on the the doc, especially on the King's early career. Glad they saved the videotapes of the "Comeback Special" ... the last DVD release with outtakes is a treasure.

OrangeTom said...

One of the best works out there on "Early Elvis" is Last Train To Memphis by Peter Guralnick. Captures his serious commitment to music before Tom Parker and drugs overwhelmed his inherent instincts. Heartbreaking in a way, because you know what is coming down the road. A reason not to read Guralnick's second volume of his Elvis bio.

Another "what if" moment in Presley's career from the first volume. Lieber and Stoller had convinced him to enter into a long term production agreement after they had done some one-offs for him earlier. Parker intervened at last minute and nixed it.

Sigh

Todd Everett said...

Incidentally, title notwithstanding, "Do the Clam" is a pretty rockin' tune and fun production number.

In other words, it's no "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad" or "Petunia the Gardener's Daughter."