The Enduring Legacy of Elvis ’68

Why is the famous “Comeback Special” still so revered to this day?

Note: this article was made possible in part thanks to a screener provided by Fathom Events of the upcoming 4k restoration of Elvis ’68, playing in UK cinemas for one night only on August 16th.

Even if its heyday of absolute popularity has passed somewhat, the concert film is still to this day considered quite the status symbol for live acts the world over.  Bottling a world-class performer(s) at (presumably) the top of their game, captivating thousands of screaming fans with an armoury’s worth of hits, into a definitive statement of who they are and why they matter.  To receive a concert film means something, even rather cheap Christmas-rushed ones designed to provide record execs with an additional guaranteed revenue stream, since it immortalises you as one of the premiere performers of your time.  Hell, Muse are now on their third of these, and that says something regardless of one’s thoughts on the music!

But despite the statement given by having a concert film made of you, many of those films are predominately “fans-only” confections of little interest to those not already sold on the artist at their centre.  Of course, being a fan of the musician and their back catalogue may strike one as a requirement for enjoying a concert film, but that’s only one part of the process.  You could have a once-in-a-lifetime performer, bashing out with all their might the kind of setlist that would make ABBA GOLD feel insignificant, but it all means nothing if the presentation isn’t also up to snuff.  It’s something that I’ve written about before, and I want to once again bring up this quote from Arcade Fire’s Win Butler upon the release of his band’s hybrid concert film/artsy documentary Mirior Noir in 2007:

“I always find live shows on film kind of boring.  Even my favourite ones, I just kind of zone out for most of it.  It’s just so different seeing a band in the flesh and then watching a film of it, even if you have a hundred cameras and it’s shot from every angle.  There’s just a communal visceral feeling that never translates very well.”

And he has a point.  I was there for the June 6th 2014 Earl’s Court show that was released as a bonus concert film for The Reflektor Tapes Blu-Ray, but watching it back just failed to accurately communicate the overwhelming near-religious fervour which overtook the sea of humanity at that Arcade Fire gig.  The presentation just wasn’t there.  It’s why the BBC’s relentless conservative unchanging house style for filming all live performances, whether they be in-studio or at a massive festival, exasperates me so greatly; they might as well just set one static camera up 5ft away from the person on the stage and call it a day.  The best concert films, at least in my opinion, strike a balance between communicating the feel of that gig on that specific night (or nights in certain cases) and demonstrating why the act performing that gig is so iconic and beloved for so many people.  Think of how Stop Making Sense immortalised the art-school weirdness and funk of Talking Heads, Don’t Think interpreted the mix of psychedelic hypnotism and infectious energy of The Chemical Brothers, MTV Unplugged in New York highlighted the wounded heart at the centre of Nirvana and the Grunge movement as a whole…

Which brings us to Elvis ’68, commonly referred to nowadays at the “Comeback Special.”  You know how it goes by this point.  Elvis’ career was going into decline, thanks to a combination of cruddy movies, a lack of new music by Presley himself, The British Invasion and the rise of Motown revolutionising the US pop charts, and Elvis having crossed the threshold of 30 (effectively a death sentence in the game of pop).  The Colonel proposed a televised Christmas special to NBC as a means of jump-starting his client’s career, producer Bob Finkel persuaded everyone to ditch the seasonal aspect and focus on Elvis, director Steve Binder was hired to work with Presley on designing the special, and the result shattered television records, reinvigorated Elvis’ passion for live performance, and gave his career a second wind.  The leather jacket, the white suit, the name in lights, etc. etc.

I had never actually seen the special prior to the screener opportunity turning up in my inbox, although I had heard about it.  Of course I’d heard about it.  Elvis ’68 is one of those bits of Rock & Roll folklore that everyone knows, passed down through the generations because of the iconic imagery that’s been jacked relentlessly over the years by pop culture and other bands trying to insert themselves into its orbit.  (Also because Elvis Presley fans are fanatical cult members that, aided and abetted by the Presley estate’s love of making all the bucks, will never ever let anything connected to the man fully fade into the abyss of time.)  But I had never actually watched the special before, so I was intrigued to finally experience it for myself and see if I could deduce why it endures to this day (besides the obvious).

Now, it may not be the exact aired special from back in the day – later edits and re-releases have augmented the 50 minute televised edition into something roughly closer to 75 minutes, thanks to additional songs, some outtakes, and re-instating cut conversations – but I very, very quickly got why Elvis ’68 endures.  Across this special, Binder, along with his crew and especially writers Chris Bearde and Allen Blye, meticulously construct the legacy of Elvis Presley in real-time.  ’68 acts as kind of the perfect capsule of every facet of the man’s career in one 50 (or 75) minute package.  It’s got iconic images, to be sure, but it’s the way that those images seem to spring fully-formed from the music and the man.  ’68 doesn’t try to reinvent or rebrand Elvis, it instead allows him to reintroduce himself via a deliberately-designed narrative progression from his pre-fame past, to his Rock Star persona, to the Movie Star present, and concluding with a glimpse of his future.

First, we get to see Elvis the Man, the young blue-collar, Blues-loving, guitar-playing truck driver who was told he couldn’t sing.  He’s sat in what effectively amounts to a campfire circle with a group of his very first bandmates, jamming along primarily to old Blues standards, sharing smiles and ad-libs and banter with his old friends, who rib on him for his movies and that signature sneer he does with his mouth.  It’s Elvis stripped of all the gloss – conceptually, of course, the whole stage set-up and careful placement of selected audience members demonstrates the fastidious design that went into a ‘casual’ jam session.  But even if it’s rehearsed, even if that seeming spontaneity in Presley’s interactions was pre-arranged and debated over relentlessly prior to recording, it doesn’t matter because the illusion is so real and so complete.  You can witness the pure thrill in Elvis as he lets certain numbers get away from him, as he calls for extra refrains at a song’s climax, in just that beaming smile that adorns his face basically the entire time.  This is an Elvis falling back in love with music, allowing us to witness the man who would become a star, with a boyish charm and a killer voice but before those traits became obviously packaged larger-than-life assets.

(Brief sidebar: This is why I don’t buy the assertions that Elvis ‘68’s sit-down segments directly inspired MTV Unplugged.  I get the superficial similarities – acoustic takes on primarily electric and complexly layered/produced songs, a host of covers designed to reveal what the performer was most influenced by.  But MTV didn’t try to hide the pageantry of Unplugged and, aside from a few very rare occasions, they weren’t designed to show off new personal sides of the artists in question.  The sit-down in Elvis was about the man Elvis Presley, whereas Unplugged and its ilk were largely just extended performance specials based around one act and the acoustic gimmick.)

Next, we are re-introduced to Elvis the Rock Star.  Strolling around a lone square-stage, surrounded on all sides by an audience of all ages and genders (but largely White and roughly middle-class or higher because this was America in 1968), with his band off-screen.  Elvis performs his hits in the round, stalking the stage with a microphone in hand, not shaking his pelvis as much as he did in the day but still throwing himself into his words and leaning into the crowd at just the right points to maximise reactions from the girls nearest the stage.  Occasionally, he’ll strap on a guitar for a song before discarding it again.  If he’s not exactly the most dynamic performer at this time, he still owns the attention regardless, resplendent with his black leather jacket and a murderer’s row of HITS being ripped through at a thunderous pace – his sped-up reworking of “All Shook Up” is electric.  This segment builds off of the sit-down by demonstrating the evolution of the boy into the man, the Rock Star responsible for ALL THOSE HITS that, for many, defined a decade.  Showing how potent they could still be even in the aftermath of The British Invasion, and that their legacies were set because of this one man with THAT voice.  A man who needs to share the stage with nobody else and needs no fancy gimmicks, because the music speaks for itself.

So, with its subject stripped back to something downright ordinary – “hanging out with the boys, joshing and jamming, just like you,” is very much the message to viewers of ’68 – and his Rock & Roll musician bona-fides sufficiently restated, we transition to the present and Elvis the Movie Star.  Casting him as a drifter, going from town to town, hooking up with ladies, defending honours in karate brawls, looking for a place that would hire a “Guitar Man,” the Jerry Reed composition that becomes the main connective tissue throughout the special as a whole.  Honestly, these were the segments which have aged the most for me, coming off as overly-campy and outdated even for television in the late-60s and drowning in medleys that feel endless and forced.  But I do understand their appeal and purpose: miniaturised examples of Elvis’ movie career and the magnetic screen presence that he had even when trapped in some truly awful garbage.  That he could transfer his stage presence to a screen presence without embarrassing himself, that he could acquit himself through acting and stunts whilst also singing – plus, the whole segment feels weirdly prescient of the music video boom in the 80s once MTV launched, retroactively.

Which is effectively the entire point of the special.  It’s all about re-introducing Elvis but in all of his guises: the Blues-loving Kid, the charismatic Rock Star, the endearing Movie Star, the Ordinary Guy, the actor, the megastar, the gospel singer, the balladeer, the Guitar Man…  All of these facets are Elvis.  Not one reductive pigeon-holing oversimplification.  He sings all kinds and he does all kinds.  He is The Exaggerated Star your parents fell head over heels for but he is also still just a down-home guy like you despite that.  And that’s why the show ends with a glimpse into the future, of Elvis the Icon.  Older, wiser, gracefully maturing into a legacy act who will endure for decades to come.  “If I Can Dream” is meant to be Elvis commenting on the fragile state of America in a year that saw the assassinations of both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. – which is the kind of thing I don’t have enough knowledge to comment on – but what I’m drawn to is that presentation.  The name in lights, the White suit, the camera filming him primarily from the waist-up.  No band, no dancers, no flash and no pizzazz.  Just Elvis, the song, and the raw emotion he puts into it.  And when he finishes, there’s that tiny beat of silence he just lets hang, before simply concluding with “Good night.  Thank you very much.”  Because he doesn’t need to say or do anything else.  That was the past, the past 13 years, the past 47/72 minutes.  This is now, this is what’s to come.

That’s why Elvis ’68 endures so much.  It’s a special and a concert film of laser-focused purpose and control, where every little decision feeds into the overarching narrative and goal of cementing the legend of Elvis Presley.  And it’s not just the obvious iconography of the name in lights, the leather jacket, the white suit, the square stage, the double denim, or any of those things.  They’re still iconic, sure, but they’re smaller parts of a larger whole, a meticulous construction whose pure excelling at its aim of building a near-bulletproof legend, even if one can’t stand the man, are still undeniable to this day.  It aims to do more than just film somebody, it tries to translate that communal visceral thrill Elvis provoked in people.

Bands jack Elvis ’68 to this day – especially in The Strokes’ (in)famous Romain Coppola-directed $2 Bill Show for MTV in 2002; Julian Casablancas, in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom, explicitly cites it as a direct inspiration for their televised special – because they want to force themselves into that orbit.  They want to call attention to that legacy, to that coolness, to that iconic nature, and it almost always backfires because, hacky marketing speak it may be, there was only one Elvis.  The special works and the legend holds because every facet of it is designed explicitly for Elvis Presley, building HIS legacy, HIS iconography, distilling HIS essence into one complete package.  I can trace a line from it to other classics of the eventual concert film form by the fact that they chose to ape Elvis 68’s underlying concept of adapting their subject’s specific essence instead of the surface-level thrills.

The giant name in lights alone isn’t as mindblowing a statement as it used to be.  But the whole of Elvis ’68, the construction and the arrangement from start to finish, most certainly still is.

A 4K restoration of Elvis ’68 will be playing in cinemas across the UK for one night only on August 16th.  Check your local cinema listings for times and further details.

Callie Petch thought their pickin’ would set ‘em on fire.

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