Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
For my third review of an Elvis Presley related DVD, I finally go back to his roots. The other two examined mid/late-period Elvis. The ’68 Comeback Special and 1970’s looked at the King as he rebounded from Sixties irrelevancy. Actually, he still seemed irrelevant to many rock fans of the era, but at least he recaptured his success and managed to reignite his audience.
Both programs had their positives, but both also showed the negative path Elvis would continue to tread until his death in 1977. Limp production numbers and soggy pap negated hot rock tunes. We still saw tantalizing glimpses of Elvis’ talent, but neither program displayed him consistently at his best.
For this Classic Albums show, we go all the way back to 1956 to examine Elvis Presley, the King’s first long-player. Elvis marks my fifth look at a Classic Albums DVD, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each of them. However, it seemed clear that this one would depart from the standard formula for the series. The other four enjoyed modern significant participation from the artists in question. Without an excellent Ouija board, that wouldn’t be possible here; could Classic Albums seem so stimulating without a fresh perspective from the record’s main creator?
No, but Elvis offered a generally interesting show nonetheless. All the others focused heavily on the development of select songs from the albums in question, but Elvis seemed more like a general documentary about that period of his career. To be sure, there was a fair amount of discussion about the record, but the show lacked some of the standard components. Obviously we didn’t hear new performances from Presley; we saw some good archival footage instead.
In addition, we couldn’t check out stripped down mixes of songs because of the era’s recording technology. Elvis Presley was a mono record, and that’s how it was taped; there are no separate elements to examine.
What we did find includes a number of modern interviews with a mix of sources. We heard from bandmembers guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, Sun records founder and producer Sam Phillips, one-time Elvis girlfriend Dixie Locke, period disc jockey Tom Perryman, period RCA promotions manager Chick Crumpacker, music historian Ernst Jorgensen, biographer Peter Guralnick, and noted admirers Keith Richards and B.B. King.
As was the case with the some of the other Classic Albums DVDs, Elvis Presley feels a little incomplete when we consider only the main 49-minute program. However, as I’ll discuss in the “supplements” area, this DVD also follows the example of the others in that it includes copious “bonus interviews”. These strongly flesh out the material and make Elvis Presley a much more complete production.
Actually, this program really only came to life when the whole package was considered. As I noted earlier, Elvis came across more as a general documentary than an examination of the album itself. We learned a little about a few of the songs and their recording, but the show mainly focused on overall history. We learned about how Elvis got into music and ended up at Sun Records and also how he landed at RCA, which was where he recorded Elvis Presley. We also heard about how he started to develop as an artist and a performer.
Without the best pieces of the other Classic Albums programs such as new performances and mixing board sessions, Elvis lived and died with its interviews and archival footage. For the most part, it thrived reasonably well, but I felt it never really caught fire. Without question the best interview pieces came from bandmates Moore and Fontana. (Bassist Bill Black - who didn’t get fully named here until the supplemental interviews - died way back in 1965.) The musicians add some good details about the recording sessions and also cover life with the King. Phillips gives us some fine notes about the studio work, while Locke contributes a few comments about Elvis’ personality.
The others are useful but less effective. Though he has a reputation as a burnout, Keith remains one of rock’s best historians, as he can provide apt and compelling remarks about other musicians. He contributes some perceptive and winning comments as he talks about Elvis’ work. The remaining participants help flesh out the details and they make the overall package fairly solid.
The archival material added some nice depth to the program. We heard clips from the actual recording of Elvis, mostly via brief but fascinating outtakes. The documentary also included a mix of interesting - though still too short - archival concert footage. We could have used more of these, but what we found was entertaining.
The other Classic Albums releases I’ve seen mostly concentrated on the specifics of some songs and added general background as a minor factor. Elvis Presley reverses that equation. We learned a little about some of the album’s tracks, but mainly it acted as a general documentary about the era. This meant that the show was entertaining and worth a look, but it lacked the special spark found on the others. Some of that can’t be avoided due to the death of its main focus, but I still would have liked a greater concentration on the album and not just Elvis’ early career.
Reminder note: the comments above addressed the main Classic Albums program. As I noted earlier, the DVD includes a significant amount of additional material that alters the overall impact of the presentation. I didn’t think this should be discussed during my review of the basic show, but I wanted to mention it again because it does strongly enhance the DVD.