Elvis Presley's fans will appreciate the Elvis: '68 Comeback Special ($49.99, BMG Distribution) deluxe edition, a three-disc DVD providing viewers with the original 1968 broadcast on NBC along with more than three hours of previously unseen material — including outtakes from the dated production skits and dramatized musical numbers. However, the DVD creators' lack of insight in collaborating with those involved with the original production renders it far short of what it could have been.
Produced and directed by Steve Binder, the "Elvis" special became 60 minutes of verite TV and gave "the king" a chance to reclaim his crown. "He was incredibly charismatic; even if [he] had not become a star, you would still turn your head and take a look at him [if he walked by]," Mr. Binder says of Mr. Presley. "And from what I understand, they used a great deal, if not all, of the footage that was shot during the video tapings. But I need to make it clear that I had nothing to do with the DVD release."
That, without a doubt, is the set's greatest failing. Watching the program, viewers will be transported back to the late 1960s through such production numbers as "Trouble/Guitar Man" or "Nothingville" that may elicit giggles. The moment Elvis appears, though — a small studio audience seated around him — it's pure magic, a shining example of one of television's finest hours.
"We had planned on using a boxing ring for one of the musical numbers with a 40-piece orchestra offstage and behind Elvis as he performed some of his greatest hits," Mr. Binder says. "But during the shooting, Elvis and a group of persons from the set ... Charlie [Hodge], Lance LeGault, Joe [Esposito], myself and a few other insiders like Allan Blye or Chris Beard would talk, sing, play music backstage, and that was an amazing thing to be a part of."
Those impromptu sessions changed the special from Vegas spectacular to an amazing moment in rock history when Mr. Binder went to Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, to suggest those jam sessions be recorded. They were then moved to a studio floor, with an informal audience, and Elvis' earlier band mates — drummer D.J. Fontanna and guitarists Charlie Hodge and Scotty Moore — were brought in for the tapings. These recordings have since become known as the "black leather" sit-down and stand-up shows. While watching these segments,viewers see Elvis in his rawest form, belting out such classic as "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," "That's All Right" and "Heartbreak Hotel."
There were difficulties during the shoots: no strap for his guitar, and a microphone stand that took on a life of its own. A pesky guitar cord during a performance of "One Night" also popped out, causing Mr. Presley to say "Wait a minute, somebody pulled the plug." The moment captured a man with a sense of humor, a brilliant idea that MTV's "Unplugged" would capitalize on nearly 20 years later.
Unfortunately, the creators of the "Elvis: '68 Comeback Special" DVD fail to provide all the medium can offer. Mr. Binder, Elvis' band mates and even NBC executives are oddly silent. If ever a DVD deserved a commentary track, it's this one. From that nonexistent audio insight, viewers might have learned that the black leather suit Elvis wore was created by costume designer Bill Belew, who mistakenly believed Elvis had appeared in leather during the 1950s. He hadn't. They also might learn how Col. Parker almost cost Elvis one of the most important events in his career. "I only knew Elvis during this period, but I will always feel that Col. Parker did not allow him to reach his full potential as a worldwide entertainer," Mr. Binder says.
Mr. Binder has many tales about his experience with Elvis. One telling and eerily sad recollection is that while an audience was brought in for the orchestral hits medley, Col. Parker wanted to be sure the audience was filled with Elvis fans for the improvised segment. To ensure that, he insisted on controlling distribution of the tickets. "Well, needless to say, a day or so before the show, a guard at the front gate asked me if I needed tickets to the show, and we found ourselves hours before filming scrounging around for an audience because the colonel never delivered." Mr. Binder recounts how this and such things as Elvis' nervousness almost created a disaster. "Elvis had cold feet regarding the improvised jam sessions, and he was not sure he wanted to do this, but I told him there was no backing out," Mr. Binder says. "And I told him if he was worried about what to say that I had been taking notes during the dressing room jam sessions, and I gave him that paper to refer to while onstage, and he actually took it out there with him and set it down in front of his chair."
It would have been interesting, perhaps, to hear commentary on how Mr. Binder's choice of shots, split screens, pans and other film techniques worked together to create an extraordinary look at an entertainer who was still young and very much alive professionally — something that sadly would change in less than 10 years. These, coupled with many other firsthand recollections by the show's producer and director, would have transformed the DVD collection from a hodgepodge of Elvis memories into a treasured historical resource.
Still, watching the footage — particularly the lip-synced variety elements versus Elvis performing at ease with his friends — reveals just how good he truly was. His warmth, talent and that one-of-a-kind charisma shine brightly throughout and were captured by Mr. Binder and his crew. "I don't believe in the director or the producer being the 'great man' theory, and this '68 special was truly a collaboration of a lot of great people behind the scenes. And it was a great team effort, but at the center of that team was Elvis," Mr. Binder says. "His voice, his career, was often silenced because he was surrounded by an inner circle of people who saw him not as a friend, but as a meal ticket. I don't think, with the exception of very few people if any, there were many people who truly cared about Elvis when he desperately was reaching out for help. "Elvis is an American tragedy in a way. He only really scratched the surface of what the future might have been."