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DVD Review: Elvis: The Great Performances

By Glenn Abel

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Elvis art "In a perfect world," Johnny Carson once said, "Elvis would be alive, and all his impersonators would be dead." But the king is quite dead, alas. The Elvis Nation and its merchant camp followers are observing the quarter-century mark of his passing this very week.

Rhino and Andrew Solt's Sofa Entertainment have seized the opportunity to recycle and re-engergize a trio of Elvis Presley clips collections from the 1990s in the three-DVD set "Elvis: The Great Performances" (retail $49.99).

The clips range from an early '50s home movie, possibly the first images of Presley on a stage, to a video of the sun King he became -- bloated and ridiculous but still singing with passion -- just six months before his inglorious death.

The Solt videos distinguish themselves with an embrace of Presley the performer, primarily in his raw, younger years. The hits are all here, coming back to life via a remarkable Dolby 5.1 audio mix that gets and deserves the "Rhinosonic" seal of approval.

Rhino is, of course, the leading remix and restoration outfit for oldies, but the "Performances" audio job was farmed out. No matter. This Elvis rocks the house. Purists have the option of a stereo (2.0) mix, but they'd be missing out on audio that gives this rock 'n' roll music a fresh, wide-open feel -- room to twist and shout. 5.1 mixes often sound forced when delivering straight-ahead rock, soul or country, but a quick A-B comparison makes the choice an easy one. Bill Black's bass thumping through the subwoofer is a thing of sonic beauty.

The videos do a decent job of telling the familiar tale of a Memphis truck driver and mama's boy who ascended to pop fame matched only by the Beatles. The definitive look at Presley's greatest year remains "Elvis '56," narrated by Levon Helm (Warner Home Video, $24.98 retail) ), but Solt, too, understands the thrill and importance of Presley's breakout run.

Discs 1 and 2 of the set ("Center Stage" and "The Man and His Music") are narrated by Presley pal George Klein, who keeps the chatter to a minimum, letting the music flow. The discs cover Presley's stage persona and his personal life, but you never have to wait long for the next song. Most of the numbers run full-length. The first two parts of "Great Performances," well-traveled on VHS, were originally packaged by Disney and then repurposed as a CBS special with narration by Priscilla Presley.

U2 singer Bono narrates Disc 3 ("From the Waist Up"), which focuses on Presley's seminal TV appearances in 1956 and '57. Bono has a lot more to say than Klein, of course, but most of it is interesting. "Waist Up" aired on VH1 a few years back.

The narrators' bits get an off-the-wall assist from optional trivia subtitles, which offer factoids in the "Pop-Up Video" style -- some relevant, some deliberately not. ("Elvis' parents bought him a guitar because they couldn't afford a bicycle.")

The images are all full-screen. Quality of the footage ranges from ragged to pristine, with the criteria seeming to be quality of performance.

Presley's first national TV appearance, for example, on the Dorsey brothers' "Stage Show," captures him and his classic quartet at full steam on "Shake, Rattle and Roll." At this point, Presley was an enthusiastic member of a combo, with guitarist Scotty Moore drawing almost as many cheers as the singer.

The national alarm sounded after Presley and the boys raged through "Hound Dog" on Milton Berle's show. While the singer's moral critics have long been remembered as shortsighted fools, you see what sparked the outrage: Elvis the Pelvis is all passion and sex appeal, raw and ready to romp with the nation's daughters. Berle loved it: "How 'bout my boy!"

Presley next shows up on Steve Allen's show, wearing a tux and singing to a dazed basset hound. Introduced as the "new Elvis," his act was neutered at Allen's insistence. "That was the only time he felt he sold out," narrator Klein says.

"Before Elvis, there was nothing," John Lennon once said of his idol. Before Elvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show," however, was Bo Diddley, doing his signature song in a propulsive clip that the "Performances" filmmakers wisely let run at full length.

Presley does three groundbreaking appearances on "Sullivan." He first wails through "Ready Teddy," issuing another shock to the system.

Six weeks later on "Sullivan," Presley sings a smoldering "Love Me," backed by the Jordanaires. It's astounding how much passion can be generated by a singer standing in front of four balding gentlemen in Jughead suits going "bub bub bub bub."

The set includes a discography and filmography. Easter eggs include Presley "jamming" with Liberace in a dressing room (no audio, alas) and a terrific "King Creole" trailer.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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