What do you get when you have an Elvis documentary with no Elvis? According to Judge Dan Mancini, a blue Christmas.
This DVD is neither endorsed nor authorized by Elvis Presley Enterprises nor any other entity.
Designed to cash in on the anniversary of the recording of Elvis's first single, "That's All Right," at Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in July of 1954, Elvis: A 50th Anniversary Celebration amounts to little more than the skeleton of a decent, if unremarkable, documentary. What's missing is the man himself, and his music. Because the piece was made without the blessing of EPE, there's little of the King's crooning—the disc's animated menus, for instance, are set to "All Shook Up," but just some generic instrumental version, not Elvis's. And the only time we see Presley is in endless loops of the iconic footage of him in a gold lamé jacket, wind-milling his arm and doing the Elvis the Pelvis thing, as well as recently unearthed home movies of an early performance in Texas. Shot by a fan, it's the earliest known color footage of the legendary entertainer. Sans the music and the man, this celebration doesn't feel particularly celebratory.
Structurally, the documentary lingers on the beginning of Presley's career and the popular culture shockwave he produced, then glosses over his movie career, Las Vegas performances, decline, and death. Fair enough, since the event we're celebrating is the launch of his recording career. The film's writer, Henry Stephens (Definitive Elvis: The 25th Anniversary), provides occasional narration in order to keep the timeline coherent and provide the viewer necessary context, but most of the show unfolds as interview segments with a variety of celebrities with personal or professional connections to Elvis. Contributors include singers Tom Jones, Neil Sedaka, Pat Boone, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Suzi Quatro (who played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days), Cliff Richards, Joe Cocker, Barry Gibb, and Tony Orlando; The Doors' Ray Manzarek, Randy Jackson from the Jackson 5, and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor; Sun Studio impresario Sam Phillips; actress Teri Garr, who had minor roles in five of Presley's films; gossip columnist Rona Barrett (who knew she was still around?); and Charlie Hodge and Joe Esposito from the King's Memphis Mafia entourage. The best parts of the show are when the interviewees relate their personal experiences of either hearing or meeting Elvis for the first time. For the most part, their anecdotes have an earnestness that conveys how revolutionary Presley's emergence onto the pop music scene was, without straying into gushing (although Tom Jones's insistence that he's never heard of anyone who doesn't like Elvis is a bit much—apparently he's never run across Chuck D from Public Enemy).
The list of participants in the paragraph above highlights another major flaw with the film. Taken at face value, the piece would lead us to assume no musician under the age of 50 and, more importantly, no musician actually making vital, innovative music today has heard of or been influenced by Elvis Presley. There's nothing wrong with the chosen contributors—especially since this is a docu about Presley's early career and they're able to relay what it was like when his music first hit the scene—but the film repeatedly asserts Elvis's central role in the evolution of rock 'n' roll, yet provides scant evidence his influence can still be felt today (other than the statistical data that his records still sell in incredible numbers, and the recent remix version of "A Little Less Conversation" from the 30 #1 Hits CD was a radio hit). The presence of even a couple stars who have at least a modicum of rock credibility today would have added much to the proceedings.
The show was shot on video, and the full screen transfer is a quality representation of the source, displaying accurate colors and no artifacts. The archive footage varies in quality, of course. Since the feature is almost entirely interviews, not much is required in the audio department, and the stereo track is entirely sufficient. Separate interviews with Chris Bearde (writer of Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special) and Cassandra Peterson (AKA Movie Macabre hostess Elvira), not used in the film, are provided as supplemental material. Bearde's segment runs approximately 14 minutes, while Peterson's is only two minutes in length. Each discusses meeting Elvis for the first time.
Unfortunately, Elvis: A 50th Anniversary Celebration is a dud of a party whose guest of honor is a no-show. Even Presley and his music couldn't have saved the documentary from being a rehash of a story told again and again (often better) over the past 25 years, but he'd have at least made it fun. This exercise in nostalgia/cashing in could've used, to quote the King himself, "a little less conversation, a little more action please."
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