Bruce Sinofsky’s thoughtful and loving portrait of Elvis Presley’s record-breaking appearances to the U.S. public via the miracle of television is a magnificent compilation of actual footage, reminiscences and re-creation. Never far from the surface is the early globalization of popular music that found its look, voice and gyrations in the kid from Memphis who became the King of Rock and Roll.
After America “survived” the Depression and WW II, the resultant tidal wave of coming-of-age baby boomers was a huge economic force. They had nothing to fear but the total destruction of the planet. Segregation, a fact of life—particularly in the “old” South and in the entertainment “industry”—was beginning to show some cracks. It took the heady combination of a good-looking white man, black-based rhythm-and-blues melody, chords and backbeat and a trip to Lansky Bros. clothiers on Beale Street to create the intoxicating recipe for “grunt and groin” that Presley exuded in every bar. “We taught them how to clap,” says it all.
As his fame and reach grew, many parents derided the music that brought races together to dance, scream and contemplate back-seat sex in their roadsters. Public hearings were held, records smashed (er, literally) and fundamentalist preachers had a field day, but the result was as effective as Prohibition. “I felt like [the music] gave them a certain liberty and it went too far … We’d have a bonfire [during the service],” recalls Reverend Jimmy Rodgers Snow. Fahrenheit 451 comes to LPs.
Ironically, Presley gets his invitation to the Ed Sullivan Show through good ol’ competition—not talent. His earlier appearance on the Steve Allen Show—despite being forced to wear tails and croon to a real hound dog, Allen acting as thrust censor—is such a ratings hit that the publicity-hound emcee smelled a winner in Elvis unleashed.
Sidelined by an auto accident, it fell to Charles Laughton to make the introduction of the perpetually nervous, true American idol, propelling both Sullivan and Presley to the top of their respective charts. Before you could say “show me the money” a full-range of products began to empty the bank accounts of teens everywhere.
In a similar manner to James Dean—the turned-up collar originated with his fellow rebel—Presley changed the culture of youth and not a few adults with his sexually charged persona. Great fun in this production is a focus group of three Memphis “teens at the time,” as they recall the broadcasts. Informative are the interviews with those who knew the King. At first “Elvis was talented but not exceptional … He’s a white guy but is sounding black,” reports BB King.
Sakae Ishikawa’s editing is a work of art, the perfect foil for Sinofsky’s vision and Bob Richman’s camera. But, of course, it’s the music that leads the way: the clips are great (the “safe” symphony orchestra on TV a hoot: er, isn’t The Rite of Spring a celebration of paganism?), the additional tracks from JJ Appleton and Thom Bresh tasty and fresh, but don’t miss the showstopper during the credits when Presley’s backup voices, The Jordonaires, fire one up for posterity. JWR