Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Since August 2002 marked the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, products came out of the woodwork to note the occasion. Of course, this onrush included many DVDs. Plenty of Elvis movies got their first release on the format, and we also found Elvis: The Great Performances, a set of classic material from the King.
We get three different volumes of Performances. Entitled Center Stage, Volume One mainly focuses on Elvis’ early career. Narrated by lifelong friend George Klein, “Center Stage” starts with some historical notes but mostly offers performance material. It shows some of Elvis’ earliest TV work through his movie gigs all the way through to June 1977, only a few weeks prior to his death.
Not surprisingly, “Center Stage” works best when it concentrates on the early days. For some of the highlights, check out “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Ready Teddy”. The former seems terrific even though Presley plays it on board an aircraft carrier. I also enjoyed the screen test from 1956 in which Elvis plays “Blue Suede Shoes” – he lip-synchs and plays a stringless guitar! A skit from The Steve Allen Show in which Elvis plays “Tumbleweed Presley” looks dated but it remains surprisingly funny.
On the negative side, pretty much everything from the late Sixties until the end stinks. Seeing him play “Suspicious Minds” so soon after we watch Fifties material really accentuates how bad his late music seemed. The 1977 performance of “Unchained Melody” is simply painful to observe, and not because of Elvis’ poor physical condition at the time; the overly theatrical rendition seems embarrassing to hear.
I could have lived without some of the movie clips seen here. These really shouldn’t count as “performances”, since Elvis doesn’t actually offer any live work in them. Admittedly, the screen test is cool to see, but the others appear less useful. One exception: the program juxtaposes the movie version of “Jailhouse Rock” with the 1968 TV rendition of “Guitar Man” to demonstrate the similarities in their staging.
As for Klein’s narration, he occasionally provides some good tidbits. For example, he tells us how Elvis thought he sold out when he went on the Steve Allen Show, and he also relates Elvis’ negative reactions to the poor reception he received from Las Vegas crowds early in his career. Otherwise, Klein doesn’t offer much of a historical framework for Presley’s career. Annoying, the program’s producers occasionally run the narration on top of the music, and a few clips get truncated in other ways; for example, “Hound Dog” starts late. I’d have preferred a show that omitted narration or other elements and simply ran Elvis’ performances.
Volume Two of The Great Performances receives the title The Man and the Music. Although it purports to offer “a glimpse into Elvis’ private life and the difficult realities of his unprecedented fame”, it really just feels like an extension of “Center Stage”. It includes additional narration from Klein and doesn’t alter the formula from Volume One.
”Man” concentrates a little more heavily on Elvis’ later career, which makes it less useful than “Center Stage”. Unpromisingly, it opens with the “American Trilogy” from Presley’s 1973 Hawaiian special. An absurdly overwrought performance, this doesn’t launch the show on a positive note. After that, it hops back to the Fifties. We hear the very early recording “My Happiness” played on top of stills from the period and then watch Elvis’ first TV appearance. From January 1956 – just weeks after his 21st birthday - he plays “Shake, Rattle and Roll/Flip, Flop and Fly” on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show.
Another high note comes from a rocking version of “Blue Suede Shows” taken from a Milton Berle program. For a less enthusiastic Elvis, check out “Don’t Be Cruel” from a January 1957 Ed Sullivan Show. After Presley’s gyrations provoked outrage, this performance showed him strictly from the waist up, and a clearly miserable Elvis looks as if someone bound his legs together.
While these early clips offer some good material, “Man” focuses mainly on Elvis’ movie work and later TV appearances. For example, we see some shots from the May 1960 show Welcome Home Elvis that was hosted by Frank Sinatra. The meeting of those two legends makes this moderately interesting, but “Man” still seems like the weaker of the first two volumes, mostly because the performances simply aren’t nearly as good.
Someone needs to pay more attention to the liner notes department: the back cover of “Man” refers to the recording of “My Happiness” heard here as “recently discovered”. That was true back in 1990, when “Man” was created, but I don’t think something that occurred 12 years ago still counts as “recent”.
Although also not recent, at least Volume Three originally appeared within five years of its DVD release. First aired in 1997, From the Waist Up changes the formula slightly. As its narrator, it replaces Klein with U2’s Bono. Perhaps to satisfy the U2 fans in the audience, “Waist” offers substantially increased amounts of narration. It presents a much chattier program, which seems good and bad.
On one hand, “Waist” comes across like a much more satisfying documentary than do the first two volumes. It mainly covers Elvis’ first year of success, with a particular emphasis on his TV appearances and the way his handlers orchestrated his career. The show includes quite a lot of good information such as notes about the session in which Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel”.
However, this increased level of information comes with a price. We see many fewer complete performances during “Waist”, as Bono talks on top of many of them. This becomes frustrating at times. I do love Bono, but occasionally I just want him to shut up and let me hear the King. “Waist” also duplicates quite a few performances seen on the first two volumes.
Nonetheless, “Waist” still works pretty well. Since it focuses on a more restricted period and theme than the first two volumes, it seems better able to achieve its goals. Despite the periodically intrusive narration, we find a lot of good material. Most of Elvis’ Sullivan appearances look complete; “Waist” crops those from other shows, however. We even see Charles Laughton as guest host the week after Ed got injured in a car crash. (Oddly, “Waist” also shows a Sullivan performance by Bo Diddley. What this has to do with Elvis I don’t know, but it makes Ed look surprisingly open-minded.)
If forced to rank the three volumes of The Great Performances, I’d pick “From the Waist Up” as my favorite by a nose. It narrowly edges out “Center Stage”. “The Man and the Music” definitely seems like the least satisfying of the trio, but it still offers some good material.
(By the way, am I the only one who finds it somewhat creepy that Elvis enjoyed a career revival that seems so strongly connected to the anniversary of his death? If all this recent hullabaloo occurred in early 2005 when Elvis would have turned 70, that’d be different. While it’s nice to see the King experience renewed interest from the public, the timing still seems to be in questionable taste.)