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DVD Review"What am I gonna do if they don't like me? What if they laugh at me?" - Elvis Presley
It's the late afternoon of June 27th, 1968; the clock is a few minutes shy of 6pm. Backstage at NBC Studios, the air is fraught with tension as 33-year-old rock legend Elvis Aron Presley sits in his dressing room sweating profusely—and it's not entirely caused by the custom-made leather outfit he's wearing.
A few feet away, a studio audience anxiously awaits what will be Elvis' first live performance in over seven years, a virtual lifetime in the record business. While away making a series of fun but mostly creatively unchallenging Hollywood musicals, the rock-and-roll landscape has done a complete 180, thanks to the likes of The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles, artists who weren't afraid to embrace change and expand upon their early material that caught the public's attention. During an era of classic albums including Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde, the man that influenced a generation of musicians was now churning out an average of three film soundtracks a year, littered with inane titles such as There's No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car and Yoga Is as Yoga Does. In other words, the pop cultural force known as The King had all but relinquished his throne.
With a strong possibility of cancellation looming, director Steve Binder rushes to Presley's aide. Over the course of months past, the legendary musical program helmer (The T.A.M.I. Show, Hullabaloo) has seen a different side of the performer during preparations for his debut television special: a driven, passionate artist anxious to emerge from a comfort cocoon and recapture his artistic integrity left behind a half-decade earlier. However, at this moment the panic stricken Presley looks nothing like the force of creative energy that has ignited the last few weeks of pre-production. Despite encouragement from the director and Memphis Mafia entourage member Joe Esposito, Elvis remains a nervous wreck. Urging him not to disappoint his fans, Binder promises to throw the footage out if the two scheduled performances turn out to be duds.
Originally conceived as a generic Christmas variety hour filled with fake snow, gift-hungry kids, and holiday standards until Presley took creative rein, the end result is a perfect blending of white hot performances and exciting production numbers that re-cast his classic hits in a modern, vibrant light. Looking impossibly sexy with an urgent raw edge to his voice only hinted at during his formative years, the boy who dared to rock during the dawn of that genre has matured into a man in complete control once more.
Among the high points of these classic 50 minutes: a thrilling sequence commencing with a triple-threat medley of Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, and All Shook Up paves the way for a blazing Jailhouse Rock (Elvis barely suppresses a laugh while maneuvering the tongue twister lyrics) and beautifully re-arranged versions of Can't Help Falling in Love and Love Me Tender, which topple their original 45rpm incarnations; a rousing gospel sequence that pays homage to Presley's musical roots, including a moving Where Could I Go But to The Lord and a furious tent-revival take on the once obscure Leiber-Stoller composition, Saved; down and dirty jams on Baby, What You Want Me to Do? (featuring Presley's gritty, underrated rhythm/lead combination riffing) and an earth-shattering One Night.
Although the revitalized classics form the heart of the show, its unquestionable highlight comes courtesy of a new song written by composer W. Earl Brown. Inspired by an emotional conversation Binder had with Presley in the wake of Robert Kennedy's assassination, the director commissioned Brown to come up with a reflective, soulful composition that not only crystallized the feelings of its singer, but also incorporated the mood of a country in the midst of one of its most turbulent years in history. Moved to such a point that the performer asked the songwriter to play his new pride-and-joy numerous times prior to the recording session, If I Can Dream became an unforgettable coda for the special, as Presley's passionate plea for "peace and understanding" resulted in what may very well be his greatest vocal performance, and a song that remains just as relevant 36 summers later.
Dual triumphs in both the record charts and Nielsen ratings aside, the Peabody Award-winning special only grew in stature over the years, particularly after Presley's passing. Yet, there was more where this superlative material came from. Disappointed at only getting stingy, "a cut here and there" compilation album treatment of the unreleased goods from RCA, adamant fans turned to enterprising bootleg album/video specialists to fill the void. Mostly complete but oftentimes lacking in quality (multi-generational sources; lack of proper re-mastering), many longtime faithful wondered if this legendary treasure chest of musical history would ever have an official release.
Well, my scarf-collecting, teddy-bear-loving contingent—this long overdue edition is finally here.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: Released in the early days of DVD through Warner Bros. and Lightyear Entertainment, '68 Comeback looked only marginally better than its VHS cousin, to be honest. Although preserved in the best conditions possible by the singer's estate, the age of the two-inch master tapes were getting more noticeable by the year, particularly the faded colors and ghosting-type artifacts. Not anymore, folks.
In a mastering job comparable to Warner Bros.' recent treatment of screen classics The Adventures of Robin Hood and others, Elvis Presley Enterprises in collaboration with Complete Post has given this material an extreme makeover. Flaws that have become second nature in past video releases are delightfully eliminated; colors are stunningly accurate (especially skintones and the shine of the legendary Bill Belew leather suit) and grain has been mostly exorcised without compromising quality. Audience members standout like never before along with tiny details like fingerprints on Scotty Moore's guitar (which Elvis borrows during the informal jam sessions) and beads of perspiration that cover the superstar's face come across with surprising clarity. Though very minor detriments remain, they are not enough to mar one of the finest video refurbishings of '60s-era television material to surface to date, courtesy of producer-editor Ray Miller; hats off to him and his staff for a job well done.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Despite its monoaural source, just as much attention was devoted to the "Deluxe Edition" audio with awe-inspiring results. Presented in both 2.0 and 5.1 versions, the former will likely find favor among staunch purists that prefer a presentation that harkens close to its original 1968 audio state with very little enhancement. For those who choose to listen with an open mind, the Dolby Digital re-mix is surprisingly effective by adding a nice expansiveness to the rears during production numbers and arena performances while playing it low key for the back-to-basics sound of the semi-unplugged segments. Crisp, non-grating highs from the fronts are notable as is an impressive low end that really cooks, especially during the Trouble/Guitar Man medley that opens the special. Although some super critical fans will wonder why multi-track audio from the recording sessions for the project weren't utilized for moments like the latter, the answer lies in the simple fact that some of Elvis' television vocals were a mixture of live performance and lip-synching during those sequences; there's no way the two differing elements could have been matched up to everyone's satisfaction.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 207 cues and remote access
On Disc 1, both of the sitdown shows from the night of June 27th, 1968 are released in their entirety for the first time (including performances of Are You Lonesome Tonight that were cut from previous releases due to publishing rights). With virtually no filler, one can't help but wonder why only 10-12 minutes from nearly two-hours of stellar material wound up in Binder's original cut of the television special. From the early gig's rendition of That's All Right to the rarely performed When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again that closes the late show, Presley and friends are constantly mesmerizing whether revisiting gems from both the Sun and early RCA eras, cracking in-jokes, recallling memorable incidents from the peak of 1950s Elvis-mania (including a memorable Jacksonville, Florida appearance filmed by police) and poking fun at the script rundown ("Elvis will talk about....not touching hands with body....er, touching body with hands"). But it's the electric, nothing-held-back performances that make this section one you'll revisit again and again courtesy of hard-driving highlights including Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Blue Suede Shoes, and especially the uninhibited 8pm show performance of Trying to Get to You, where Presley's facial expressions are almost identical to the black-and-white concert photo that adorned the cover of his first album; as the wild crowd roars its approval upon the extended thrashing of its final "E" chord, watch his reaction: a mixture of orgasmic post-song relief and a sense of pleasure that seems to say, "I made it. I'm back"—truly one of the most transcendent moments in the history of rock.
Revelatory as the sitdown shows were, the more traditional stand-up shows of June 29th, 1968 contained on Disc 2 rival them for sheer excitement, thanks to Presley's revived confidence and the wonderful support by NBC's resident orchestra supplemented by girl group The Blossoms (including legendary Phil Spector vocalist Darlene Love) and some of L.A.'s best sessionmen of that time, including drumming legend Hal Blaine and six-string wizard Tommy Tedesco. Egged on by highly supportive audiences, Elvis' initial nervousness disappears within seconds as stellar versions of Blue Suede Shoes and Don't Be Cruel emerge among others. However, the peak performance of both shows surfaces via an inspired, impromptu jam on Baby, What You Want Me to Do? to fill time due to a technical delay in the production booth. Also included are pre-concert audience warm-ups by producer Bob Finkel ("Does anybody have to go to the bathroom?") and between-take banter between Elvis and fans at the front of the stage (including a wacky spin at MacArthur Park and a hilarious moment when he gets so in the zone that he momentarily forgets that there's a piece of musical equipment on stage he needs to utilize in order to be heard ("Shouldn't I be in front of the microphone?")
In a special treat for longtime fans who have bought every home video version of this material, all four concerts contained on the disc have been re-edited from scratch by Miller, co-directors Todd Morgan (creative development director for Graceland) and Gary Hovey. Using a rare video source taken from one camera angle, the end result compliments original director Steve Binder's creative visuals (midway cross fades, overhead angles) by adding livelier, appropriate cutting, more prominent close-ups of Presley and additional interaction between him and his band mates.
Filling out the remainder of Disc 2 and all of Disc 3 is every take from the four production numbers. With over 100 chapters allotted to these sequences, watching them all in one sitting is next to impossible. Not that the material isn't great, but witnessing the amount of work that Presley and his cast go through (sometimes for edit pieces lasting no longer than :30s to :45s) is draining yet inspiring; you get a sense of how tight the Comeback unit was by many moments of applause following the end of a successful take along with abundant smiles and laughter. I also admired the non-censoring of those rare working moments when Presley's legendary temper came into play, not to the point of embarrassing anyone, but agitated with himself over not coming in on cue, missing a dance step and so on. But there's more hilarity than huff including what may be the first recorded example of "wardrobe malfunction" and an inspired practical joke courtesy of the production crew . Great stuff.
In addition to this digital treasure chest of archival goodness, a brand new music video for If I Can Dream (incorporating the original white-suit finale with lip sync footage recorded during the arena shows), the complete shooting session for the rare NBC Huh-Huh-Huh promo for the special, a multi-page booklet with many unseen photos supplemented by an essay by noted rock writer Greil Marcus (Mystery Train) and the restoration of the smokin' Let Yourself Go to the main special (part of a risqué sequence that the sole sponsor of the show forced to be cut) round out an indispensible set.
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsOne of the defining moments of Elvis Presley's career is given its DVD due in an amazing multi-disc set. Joining the ranks of Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz and A Hard Day's Night, Elvis: '68 Comeback Special-Deluxe Edition is truly an essential "must-have" for any serious rock-and-roll fan.
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