Reinventing Elvis

Television has witnessed remarkable and transformative musical performances throughout its history — from the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to Queen at Live Aid and Tony Bennett’s “MTV Unplugged” — moments that have become legendary and woven into our perception of an artist’s journey.

Yet, in the annals of television history, few events have been as monumental as “Singer Presents … Elvis,” popularly known as “The ’68 Comeback Special.” This one-hour spectacle not only altered our perspective on Elvis Presley but also reshaped his own self-view. The hour embodies a metaphorical concept: a man moving forward by embracing his roots and artistic essence, a revitalized Elvis. It is, arguably and almost indisputably, the most pivotal juncture of his career, comparable only to that pivotal day at Sun Studios in 1954 when Elvis, armed with his own guitar, Scotty Moore’s electric Gibson ES-295, and Bill Black’s double bass, made a transformative musical statement.

This television event now serves as the centerpiece of a new documentary, “Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback,” set to premiere on Paramount+ on Tuesday. Directed by John Scheinfeld, the film largely draws from the recollections of executive producer Steve Binder, who directed the ’68 special. Binder’s rapport with Presley evolved into a bond of trust, much to the displeasure of the territorial manager, Col. Tom Parker. Binder, whom Parker sometimes referred to as “Bindle,” recounts the challenges of the production with laughter, resembling a seasoned veteran who has distanced himself enough from the battle to appreciate its absurdities.

Although the documentary may not provide the most nuanced portrayal, especially concerning Parker — depicted dramatically with a smoking cigar and explicitly labeled “The Villain” (in contrast to Binder as “The Hero” and Presley as “The Star”) — it exudes a casual charm filled with anecdotes. It also stands as a refreshing counterpoint to Baz Luhrmann’s meticulously mimetic yet factually whimsical biographical film. Naturally, fans will find it a must-watch.

Personally, I am intimately familiar with the special, having worn out an unofficial VHS copy long before its official release. Having grown up in an era when Hollywood Elvis dominated my perspective — having watched his later films in theaters and earlier ones on television — the original broadcast of the special took place when I was unaware that his career, as Binder candidly informed the singer, was “in the toilet.”

Irrespective of your knowledge or history with the comeback special, its profound existential impact is undeniable — the impassioned performance, the desire to be heard, the surrender to the present moment. While certain elements were carefully orchestrated — complex choreographed production numbers, for instance — the prevailing atmosphere is one of genuine occurrences unfolding in real-time. This is particularly evident when the star, dressed entirely in black leather from neck to ankle, serenades a live audience situated in the round, encircled by friends such as Moore and Black. He performs the old tunes, seemingly for his own enjoyment.

Despite the intricacies, Presley’s career follows a discernible arc, akin to a hero’s journey: birth, death, resurgence, decline, and eventual elevation. There’s the country boy who emerged from modest beginnings to reshape history; the two-year Army hiatus, coinciding with the anticipated yet temporary wane of rock ‘n’ roll’s vigor; a post-service phase marked by a slew of lackluster films and an increasing sense of estrangement; the TV special that ushers Elvis, after a seven-year hiatus from performing, back into the limelight, catalyzing a renewed dedication to both the studio and stage. Then follows a protracted decline, accompanied by prescription drugs, overindulgence, and misguided advice, even as his admirers elevate him to the status of a deity — the Sun King of rock ‘n’ roll.


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By acinetv