If Elvis Presley had lived only a few more years, to the early ’80s, he surely would have been one of the first in the world to plunk down $2,665 for an original IBM personal computer. How do I know this? Well, in Virtual Graceland, former bodyguard Sam Thompson effuses about his employer’s 60-inch projection TV set (situated tastefully in front of an artificial waterfall in the ”jungle room” of the Graceland mansion), while friend T.G. Sheppard testifies that Elvis owned one of the first VCRs in the country and had, in the mid-’70s, more digital watches than you could shake a gold record at. I can imagine the King, in some alternate universe, sitting in front of a souped-up PC playing Doom; if he somehow were still alive (and flipping burgers at a Nashville truck stop), you can bet he’d be accessing the URL for 24-Hour Church of Elvis from a pseudonymous America Online account.
Elvis’ taste for high tech is just one of the fascinating things you learn from this double-disc set, which was created with the cooperation of the Presley estate (and coexecutive- produced by ex-wife Priscilla). As its title promises, Virtual Graceland is a multimedia tour of all things Presley, taking the faithful on a touchy-feely exploration of the singer’s Memphis mecca that real-life fans, sequestered behind red velvet ropes, can only fantasize about.
The CD-ROM reproduces most of Graceland — including the basement and first floor, the car museum, and the stables — in frame- by-frame, ”navigable movie” detail. Clicking on various objects (a grand piano, a TV set, a black leather jumpsuit) summons up audio and video interviews with motley Elvis acquaintances, hangers-on, and henchmen. The producers dug deep, buttonholing 42 people, including such surprises as Ed Asner, Hope Lange, and Mick Fleetwood. Accompanying all these testimonials are fascinating bits of Elvis arcana — a home movie of his wedding, a black-and-white photo of an adoring Natalie Wood, a snapshot of the preteen Lisa Marie.
What’s fascinating about Virtual Graceland is how innocently Elvis’ eccentricities come off in today’s scandal-crazed age — compared with, say, the media frenzies stirred up by the son-in-law he never knew. Backup singer J.D. Sumner recalls Presley mysteriously winging to Denver in his private jet for a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (approximate cost: $16,000), while stable groom Mike McGregor tells how his erstwhile employer avoided getting slapped for illegal target shooting on the Graceland grounds by inviting the Memphis police inside for coffee. The cumulative impression of these video and audio interviews is one of overwhelming goodwill: These folks genuinely seem to have liked Elvis, and if he sometimes behaved like a nut, well, so would you if you had more money than you knew what to do with.
Of course, since this is Official Presley Product, Virtual Graceland does gloss over some of the less savory aspects of Elvis’ life. Although it’s possible to pop into Graceland’s living room, TV room, and poolroom, you won’t get a glimpse of the notorious bathroom in which Elvis died (it’s not even identified in any way on the 23-room mansion’s on-screen schematic diagram), and clicking on the refrigerator in the kitchen yields not an anecdote about the King’s legendary appetite but rather a pointless story about the newborn Lisa Marie. Worse, an accompanying time line of Presley’s career is terse to the point of uselessness (”Early 1972: Elvis and Priscilla separate”).
I do, almost guiltily, have a few more quibbles with Virtual Graceland. It could certainly use a bit more music (you may want to upgrade your speakers to hear the excerpts — 13 in all — from songs like ”Jailhouse Rock”); and to say that the on-screen controls are quirky would be an understatement. You can never be sure which way you’re going to turn when you click on a navigational icon, but the effect is more endearing than frustrating, like being in the virtual shoes of a breathless, where-do-I-go-first Elvis fan. Still, enough bad things have been written about Elvis since his death that I don’t mind this disc’s determinedly sunny-side approach. Virtual Graceland reminds us why the man was a genuine American legend. It’s the multimedia equivalent of a hunka hunka burnin’ love. A