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Andrew Solt
Elvis Presley
Writing Credits:

Not Rated.

3-Disc set
Standard 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Not closed-captioned

Runtime: 159 min.
Price: $49.99
Release Date: 8/13/2002

• Trivia Track
• Filmography
• Discography


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Elvis: The Great Performances (1990)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Since August 2002 marked the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, products came out of the woodwork to note the occasion. Of course, this onrush included many DVDs. Plenty of Elvis movies got their first release on the format, and we also found Elvis: The Great Performances, a set of classic material from the King.

We get three different volumes of Performances. Entitled Center Stage, Volume One mainly focuses on Elvis’ early career. Narrated by lifelong friend George Klein, “Center Stage” starts with some historical notes but mostly offers performance material. It shows some of Elvis’ earliest TV work through his movie gigs all the way through to June 1977, only a few weeks prior to his death.

Not surprisingly, “Center Stage” works best when it concentrates on the early days. For some of the highlights, check out “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Ready Teddy”. The former seems terrific even though Presley plays it on board an aircraft carrier. I also enjoyed the screen test from 1956 in which Elvis plays “Blue Suede Shoes” – he lip-synchs and plays a stringless guitar! A skit from The Steve Allen Show in which Elvis plays “Tumbleweed Presley” looks dated but it remains surprisingly funny.

On the negative side, pretty much everything from the late Sixties until the end stinks. Seeing him play “Suspicious Minds” so soon after we watch Fifties material really accentuates how bad his late music seemed. The 1977 performance of “Unchained Melody” is simply painful to observe, and not because of Elvis’ poor physical condition at the time; the overly theatrical rendition seems embarrassing to hear.

I could have lived without some of the movie clips seen here. These really shouldn’t count as “performances”, since Elvis doesn’t actually offer any live work in them. Admittedly, the screen test is cool to see, but the others appear less useful. One exception: the program juxtaposes the movie version of “Jailhouse Rock” with the 1968 TV rendition of “Guitar Man” to demonstrate the similarities in their staging.

As for Klein’s narration, he occasionally provides some good tidbits. For example, he tells us how Elvis thought he sold out when he went on the Steve Allen Show, and he also relates Elvis’ negative reactions to the poor reception he received from Las Vegas crowds early in his career. Otherwise, Klein doesn’t offer much of a historical framework for Presley’s career. Annoying, the program’s producers occasionally run the narration on top of the music, and a few clips get truncated in other ways; for example, “Hound Dog” starts late. I’d have preferred a show that omitted narration or other elements and simply ran Elvis’ performances.

Volume Two of The Great Performances receives the title The Man and the Music. Although it purports to offer “a glimpse into Elvis’ private life and the difficult realities of his unprecedented fame”, it really just feels like an extension of “Center Stage”. It includes additional narration from Klein and doesn’t alter the formula from Volume One.

”Man” concentrates a little more heavily on Elvis’ later career, which makes it less useful than “Center Stage”. Unpromisingly, it opens with the “American Trilogy” from Presley’s 1973 Hawaiian special. An absurdly overwrought performance, this doesn’t launch the show on a positive note. After that, it hops back to the Fifties. We hear the very early recording “My Happiness” played on top of stills from the period and then watch Elvis’ first TV appearance. From January 1956 – just weeks after his 21st birthday - he plays “Shake, Rattle and Roll/Flip, Flop and Fly” on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show.

Another high note comes from a rocking version of “Blue Suede Shows” taken from a Milton Berle program. For a less enthusiastic Elvis, check out “Don’t Be Cruel” from a January 1957 Ed Sullivan Show. After Presley’s gyrations provoked outrage, this performance showed him strictly from the waist up, and a clearly miserable Elvis looks as if someone bound his legs together.

While these early clips offer some good material, “Man” focuses mainly on Elvis’ movie work and later TV appearances. For example, we see some shots from the May 1960 show Welcome Home Elvis that was hosted by Frank Sinatra. The meeting of those two legends makes this moderately interesting, but “Man” still seems like the weaker of the first two volumes, mostly because the performances simply aren’t nearly as good.

Someone needs to pay more attention to the liner notes department: the back cover of “Man” refers to the recording of “My Happiness” heard here as “recently discovered”. That was true back in 1990, when “Man” was created, but I don’t think something that occurred 12 years ago still counts as “recent”.

Although also not recent, at least Volume Three originally appeared within five years of its DVD release. First aired in 1997, From the Waist Up changes the formula slightly. As its narrator, it replaces Klein with U2’s Bono. Perhaps to satisfy the U2 fans in the audience, “Waist” offers substantially increased amounts of narration. It presents a much chattier program, which seems good and bad.

On one hand, “Waist” comes across like a much more satisfying documentary than do the first two volumes. It mainly covers Elvis’ first year of success, with a particular emphasis on his TV appearances and the way his handlers orchestrated his career. The show includes quite a lot of good information such as notes about the session in which Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel”.

However, this increased level of information comes with a price. We see many fewer complete performances during “Waist”, as Bono talks on top of many of them. This becomes frustrating at times. I do love Bono, but occasionally I just want him to shut up and let me hear the King. “Waist” also duplicates quite a few performances seen on the first two volumes.

Nonetheless, “Waist” still works pretty well. Since it focuses on a more restricted period and theme than the first two volumes, it seems better able to achieve its goals. Despite the periodically intrusive narration, we find a lot of good material. Most of Elvis’ Sullivan appearances look complete; “Waist” crops those from other shows, however. We even see Charles Laughton as guest host the week after Ed got injured in a car crash. (Oddly, “Waist” also shows a Sullivan performance by Bo Diddley. What this has to do with Elvis I don’t know, but it makes Ed look surprisingly open-minded.)

If forced to rank the three volumes of The Great Performances, I’d pick “From the Waist Up” as my favorite by a nose. It narrowly edges out “Center Stage”. “The Man and the Music” definitely seems like the least satisfying of the trio, but it still offers some good material.

(By the way, am I the only one who finds it somewhat creepy that Elvis enjoyed a career revival that seems so strongly connected to the anniversary of his death? If all this recent hullabaloo occurred in early 2005 when Elvis would have turned 70, that’d be different. While it’s nice to see the King experience renewed interest from the public, the timing still seems to be in questionable taste.)

The DVD Grades: Picture D / Audio C- / Bonus D+

Elvis The Great Performances appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, single-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the images have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Given the huge mix of source materials and the age of the footage, I didn’t anticipate strong visuals from Performances, and I got what I expected from this watchable but often messy set of programs.

Overall the program seemed very erratic. Disappointingly, it appeared that Rhino simply used the old video transfers that created the original 1990 and 1997 releases. I felt this way because I noticed a lot of problems that didn’t seem related to the source material. Sure, I saw quite a few flaws during the TV and film footage. These offered examples of grain, streaks, lines and other defects. However, I also noticed moderate levels of video artifacts, and since still photos exhibited speckles and spots, those concerns obviously came from the transfers.

Sharpness varied throughout the shows. These seemed rather soft at times. Some of those issues resulted from the poor quality of the TV performance recordings, but even later appearances demonstrated moderate fuzziness. The programs seemed somewhat gauzy at times; again, that appeared to occur because the shows likely came straight from the original video sources without any kind of new transfer. I thought I detected some edge enhancement, but this was hard to determine given the state of the footage.

Most of the material was black and white, though color occasionally appeared for segments like the “Blue Suede Shoes” screen test and “Guitar Man”. The hues generally looked faded and flat, and the tones seen in the 1968 “Comeback Special” clips looked heavy and runny. Nonetheless, since few color pieces showed up, these concerns didn’t seem major. Black levels varied from pretty tight to pale and murky, but they generally came across as drab and inky. Shadow detail didn’t really become much of an issue, since most of the clips came from fully lighted programs. When low-light situations occurred, these appeared a bit messy, mostly due to the lackluster quality of the black tones.

I find it tough to adequately grade a program like The Great Performances because it’s not realistic to expect stellar visuals. Given the nature of the medium at the time, we’re lucky to have any record of Elvis’ Fifties TV appearances at all, so I can’t complain too loudly because they look terrible. Nonetheless, The Great Performances came as a disappointment simply because I don’t believe anyone put much work into these transfers. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised to learn that they didn’t simply come from the same videos that were used for the original releases. With some effort, these DVDs could have removed a lot of the video issues that concerned me, which would have resulted in a rating higher than the “D” I issued them.

While the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks of The Great Performances definitely outdid the visuals, the audio still demonstrated more problems than I’d expect. Not surprisingly, the soundfield remained heavily oriented toward the front center. Most of Elvis’ music presented monaural imaging. A few pieces such as “Guitar Man”, “Treat Me Nice” from Jailhouse Rock, and “Return to Sender” from Girls, Girls, Girls offered stereo elements, but the majority of Presleys’ tracks stayed monaural. Incidental music showed nice clear stereo separation and also demonstrated light spread to the surrounds. In addition, I heard some obviously overdubbed crowd noise and screams that used the side and rear speakers, but those seemed annoyingly fake and artificial.

Audio quality varied due to the many different sources. Whether we heard Klein or Bono, the narration sounded warm and natural. For the most part, the music appeared thin and tinny, but some exceptions occurred. Studio recordings such as one rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” worked pretty well; they generally seemed pretty clear and demonstrated decent dynamic range. Some of the stereo pieces also sounded reasonably detailed and distinct. Just as the TV clips suffered visually due to era-related limitations, those programs’ audio also didn’t present much range or clarity.

At least they generally stayed fairly clean. Some distortion appeared at times, and I also noted some crackling. However, most of the source materials lacked those problems. Where The Great Performances ran into more annoying problems related to the work done for the transfers. For one, clearly the producers added artificial bass for some of the songs. This seemed particularly noticeable during the Sullivan clips, as those demonstrated low-end response that sounded much too loud. The bass didn’t appear boomy or loose, but it obviously didn’t come from the original recordings, which made it a distraction. In addition, I heard a lot of hiss that seemed to emanate from the transfer and not the source materials. While the audio of The Great Performances managed to remain decent most of the time, the tracks lost points due to various forms of unnecessary tampering; had the producers just transferred the sound in its original state, I’d have given the package a rating higher than “C-“.

As a bonus feature on Great Performances, we find a Trivia Track. If selected, this text feature runs as you watch the documentaries. Mostly it offers general non-Elvis facts such as notes about the invention of the telephone, the origins of the bow tie and the definition of a petition. We get a little Elvis material as well, but the material usually remains pretty basic and uninformative. However, we do find some odd notes such as Presley’s disdain for forks and his preference for spoons.

Found only on “Waist”, we also get a Discography and a Filmography. Both seem very weak. They simply list “selected” titles with no rhyme or reason, and they also fail to convey any detail about the entries. Both the discography and the filmography are wastes of time.

The three documentaries that comprise Elvis: The Great Performances don’t provide a complete picture of the artist, but they offer a reasonably compelling portrait nonetheless. Though they seem erratic and suffer from rapid swings between highs and lows, they include enough fine material to interest both Elvis veterans and newcomers as well. Unfortunately, the DVDs offer weak picture and sound quality. Some of the concerns relate to the quality of the source material, but too many problems seem to arise from shoddy transfers. In addition, the DVDs provide skimpy extras. Despite all the concerns, I still enjoyed the time I spent with The Great Performances. Nonetheless, I find it hard to recommend a package that seems to suffer from so many apparently avoidable defects.

Note: the three volumes of Elvis: The Great Performances can be purchased individually as well as together in this three-disc package. On their own, the DVDs cost $19.99 each. At $49.99 for the three-volume set, that makes it a nice deal for folks who want to own all of the DVDs.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5 Stars Number of Votes: 8
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