Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Elvis: '68 Comeback Special (1968)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Usually referred to as The ’68 Special or The ’68 Comeback, the actual name of this landmark television special was Elvis. Taped in June 1968, it first aired the following December 3rd on NBC-TV. It stands as one of the great television moments in rock music history and a stunningly brilliant milestone in Elvis Presley’s career. Elvis rocked the world in the 1950s, a leader among musicians who brought about a revolution in music and pop culture. Through most of the 1960s he concentrated mainly on his movie career, which was very successful, but had become a grind and had not given him many opportunities to prove himself as a serious actor. By 1968, it had been more than seven years since Elvis had appeared on stage in front of a live audience. In this television special, Elvis plays his greatest role – simply being himself.

Appearing on stage alone and in jam sessions reuniting him with early band mates Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, Elvis performs his classic rock and pop hits, introduces new material and reminisces about his career. There’s a rousing gospel segment, a semi-autobiographical production number and as the finale, Elvis’ passionate performance of If I Can Dream.

The voice. The energy. The move. The look. The charisma. The attitude. To many, this show represents Elvis Presley at his very best.

After this triumph, Elvis poured renewed creative vigor into his recording work, wrapped up his movie contract obligations and returned full-time to the concert stage, beginning a new and exciting era of his career.

Director: Steve Binder
Cast: Elvis Presley
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Mono; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; 30 chapters; Not Rated; 73 min.; $24.98; street date 8/1/00.
Supplements: Slide Show.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D/D+/D-

After my recent screening of Elvis - That’s the Way It Is, I felt curious to check out more video footage of the King. Since my musical tastes run more toward acts from the Sixties and later, I never got terribly interested in Elvis’ work, so although I wasn’t wild about the presentation found in That’s the Way It Is - which tended toward self-parody - I saw enough energy in his performance to interest me in additional material.

Presley’s 1968 “comeback special” enjoys a reputation as solid Elvis, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Essentially, by the late Sixties, Presley had degenerated into musical irrelevance. After starring in a slew of forgettable movies, he’d lost much presence on the charts, and the musical innovations of the decade left him in the lurch.

As such, it was decided that he needed a refurbishing, and an NBC TV special was the chosen vehicle. Formally titled Elvis, this show combined slick production numbers that featured Presley and suitably “mod” dancers with more rootsy material; much of the program utilized what would later be known as the “unplugged” format in which Elvis and some musicians played largely non-electric versions of his songs.

It worked. Although Elvis never regained the preeminence he once enjoyed, his career nonetheless went back on the upswing. He followed the show with successful showroom engagements in Las Vegas - one of which was documented in That’s the Way It Is - and Elvis soon toured for the first time in more than a decade. No, it wasn’t the status he held in the Fifties, and things gradually got worse before his sad demise in 1977, but at least Elvis continued to make music until his death.

While I can’t claim that none of this would have happened without Elvis, the success of the special certainly paved the way for his reinvigoration. Due to its status as a classic, I was most eager to check out the program.

Did it live up to my expectations? Yes and no. Elvis is a show with a split personality. On one hand we find a slew of terrible production numbers. In these Elvis lip-synchs some not-great tunes and interacts with a slew of not-great dancers. All of these segments are simply atrocious. They’ve aged poorly, though I can’t imagine they seemed anything other than silly in 1968 either.

However, the “unplugged” moments are absolutely terrific. Backed by long-time - and legendary - bandmates such as guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D. J. Fontana, Elvis seems relaxed and strongly involved in the material. They perform on a small stage which is surrounded by fans who literally sit at their feet; it’s a very informal setting that adds to the natural tone of the segments.

Some of this part doesn’t work tremendously well, but that’s due to a few poor musical choices. The closing ballad - “Memories” - ends the unplugged bits on a sappy note, and apparently Elvis found it impossible to do a straight version of “Love Me Tender”; as occurred during That’s the Way It Is, he ruins the song with giggles and silly lyrical alterations.

Otherwise, however, the stripped-down performance was thrilling. Elvis sounds simply fantastic. His voice faltered frequently during That’s the Way It Is, but his singing remains strong and rich during all of Elvis. The band is beyond reproach, and they provide strong backing for the King. When one hears all of the fuss about Elvis’ work, this is the Presley they mean: electric, savage and totally in control.

As such, about half of Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special works like gangbusters. The production numbers are a different story, but I guess that’s why DVDs have chapter markings. Nonetheless, the “unplugged” material on this disc offers prime Elvis and definitely entertained me.

The DVD:

I wish I had such positive sentiments about the DVD itself. Elvis: The ’68 Comeback Special appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. To call this transfer “ugly” would be an understatement, as the poor appearance of the show made it almost unwatchable.

Sharpness presented a consistently problematic area. The entire film appeared very soft and muddy, with absolutely no shots that came across as crisp and well-defined. Even close-ups seemed flat and hazy, and the lack of detail was galling. Moiré effects and jagged edges appeared absent, but since the image featured so little sharpness, that wasn’t surprising. As for flaws, the source material showed no horrible concerns, though it often appeared wavy. Check out “If I Can Dream” to see what I mean; as Elvis performs, the image warps slightly.

Colors seemed pale and faded. As a whole, the hues were bland and without and vivid qualities; they appeared messy and bland at all times. Black levels were excessively gray and flat, and the entire picture looked too bright. This means that we can easily witness all of the blockiness and pixelization that result during this poor transfer. Frankly, I think this DVD was mastered from a VHS tape. The image seemed so fuzzy and drab that I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that it came from anything other than a flawed source.

Also weak was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of the Comeback Special. Remastered from a monaural source, the audio seemed weak throughout the show. The soundfield appeared to offer a vaguely stereophonic presence, but I’d be hard pressed to point out any clean delineation of instruments. The sound seemed to spread across the forward speakers, but it remained mushy and ill-defined. As such, it came across as glorified mono; the mix may have not been focused firmly on the center, but it didn’t offer any of the presence associated with a good stereo track.

As for the surrounds, they appeared to feature some general reinforcement of the front spectrum, but I couldn’t detect any more specific or substantial activity from them; for all intents and purposes, they provided no useful information. Some drop-out also marred the presentation, and occasionally audio from one channel bled into another; this was a poorly-defined image.

I could live with the ill-defined soundfield if I encountered good audio quality, but unfortunately, the program sounded terrible. From start to finish, the music appeared thin and rough, with a seriously scratchy tone present at all times. Vocals seemed tinny and sibilant, and very little dynamic range could be heard; a slight amount of bass escaped at times, but there wasn’t enough to add any depth to the audio. Ultimately, this was a harsh and grating soundtrack that I found to offer a largely unpleasant experience.

By the way, don’t expect to turn to the original monaural soundtrack for higher quality sound. I gave it a listen at times and thought it presented even crummier audio than was heard on the 5.1 mix! It featured all of the 5.1 tracks flaws but also came across as more lifeless and thin. I’m under the distinct impression that Elvis appeared as an album around the time of the show’s broadcast. As such, I’d have to believe that higher quality recordings of the sessions exist, so their failure to appear on the DVD makes the presentation even more disappointing.

As it shoots for the DVD trifecta of poor quality, we next look at the extras on Elvis, or the lack thereof. The DVD includes a Slide Show which presents a mix of 12 color and black and white shots of the King, and we also find web links to and The latter is the website for the folks that produced this DVD. Somehow I was able to resist the urge to bombard them with nasty e-mails.

On Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special, we find a mix of work from the King. Some of the material is simply atrocious, as Elvis is placed into a number of silly production numbers. However, when the show focuses on music, the results are fantastic, as we see what made Elvis a sensation. Unfortunately, this DVD is an almost-total disaster. It provides atrocious picture and audio quality with no significant extras. I’d love to be able to recommend Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special just because some parts of it are so good, but when a DVD itself looks and sounds so terrible, I’m afraid that it needs to remain on the shelf.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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