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Elvis: The Great Performances

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Elvis Presley, the object of fan deification almost unparalleled in the annals of celebrity worship, remains a puzzle that may never be solved, the Rosebud of our popular culture. The Presley mystique, of course, is understandable. His career — spanning an arc from ”Rebel Without a Cause” to ”Man Who Ate Himself to Death” — can be read as a metaphor for America itself. And the puzzle — How did all that happen? — is fascinating.

The intensity of contemporary Elvis adulation (and the sheer volume of attendant Elvisiana) does seem a little ridiculous; this was a pop singer, after all, not Gandhi. So faced with two new Elvis videos, we might well ask: Do we really need them? Especially in a world where nearly every extant image of the man is already available on tape?

In this case, the answer — thanks to rock filmmaker Andrew Solt (Imagine: John Lennon) — is by and large yes. In Elvis: The Great Performances, Solt has collected some of the best and most representative Elvis performances from TV and films (a few of which, such as an astonishing Technicolor screen-test version of ”Blue Suede Shoes,” have never been released before) and edited them so they speak for themselves, essentially uncut and uninterrupted. The result is an eloquent testimony to Presley’s raw talent, sex appeal, and native intelligence. Even in a jaded age like our own, it’s hard to watch and hear this stuff — the Brandoesque ”Mean Woman Blues” sequence, the legendary demo version of ”My Happiness”
without marveling at the star’s almost otherworldly assurance and audacity.

The packages are not without flaws, of course. Solt’s narration, read by Presley pal George Klein (a Memphis deejay) is trite and hagiographic, failing to confront the various myths and canards about Elvis (e.g., he was just an ignorant cracker ripping off his R&B betters). Instead, it offers fan club superficiality (we’re told, for example, that El was really proud of his Jailhouse Rock production number, hardly a revelation). More troubling, at least from the consumer standpoint, is that Buena Vista has released the tapes as two roughly 50-minute programs, rather than a single full-length tape à la Solt’s previous made-for-video documentary, the Rolling Stones’ 25 x 5. This seems like simple money-grubbing, although it might be part of the venerable tradition of rip-off Elvis compilation albums.

In the end, though, Elvis: The Great Performances — short on analysis and mendaciously packaged as it is — does provide visual and aural evidence that Presley deserves his legend. And it does that in the most appropriate way possible, by relying on the sheer force of the singer’s presence. As a reference source for some Martian who wants to find out what all the fuss was about, the programs are close to unbeatable. Both tapes: A-