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Thursday, August 6, 2009


Of all the various stages that Elvis Presley went through during his staggering career as a worldwide cultural phenomenon, the one I still prefer most is the fresh-faced supernova that we see in ELVIS: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW--THE CLASSIC PERFORMANCES. Intense idolatry and fame are still new to this young, vibrant, almost naive Elvis, and we can see him having fun with the experience before it sours and begins to isolate him from the rest of humanity.

"The Ed Sullivan Show", for those who have never seen it, was a live hour-long variety show that ran seemingly forever and was hosted by a stiff, dour-looking guy known mainly as a renowned entertainment journalist. Ed brought to his vast television audience a wide array of acts that ranged from ballet to Broadway, from Shakespeare to Shecky Greene, and finally, unwillingly, began to encompass the burgeoning world of rock and roll. Ed was hesitant to feature this strange new hip-waggling rocker on his show, but when an appearance by Elvis on Steve Allen's show garnered astronomical ratings, Ed figured it was time to get some of those millions of rabid teen fans tuning in to his own show before the fad had faded.

This DVD is a record of Elvis' three major appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The September 9, 1956 episode is minus Ed Sullivan himself, who had been injured in a head-on collision and would rely on a series of guest hosts until his return several weeks later. After being introduced to the screaming audience by a not-ready-for-primetime Charles Laughton, Elvis makes his way onto the stage and humbly thanks everyone for what he calls "probably the greatest honor I've ever had in my life" before launching into "Don't Be Cruel." The other songs he performs on this show are "Love Me Tender", "Ready Teddy", and "Hound Dog." After that last number Charles Laughton asks the audience in classic old-fogey style, "Well, what did somebody say, hath charms to soothe the savage breast?"

The young Elvis proves to be a fun-loving cutup who rarely takes himself seriously. He loves to make faces during songs to provoke laughter and screams from the audience. Referring to "Love Me Tender" as his "latest RCA Victor escape...uh, release", Elvis doesn't even spare this solemn, sappy tune his constant clowning. Later, he holds up a finger and says with mock seriousness, "Friends, as a great philosopher once said..." before launching into "Hound Dog" with as much awareness as anyone else that it's a supremely silly song.

On the October 28, 1956 show, a vibrant Elvis greets the returning Ed Sullivan by laughing his way through "Don't Be Cruel" and then having to slog through "Love Me Tender" again like a kid being forced to eat his spinach. He still manages to have fun with it, though--the playfulness of his mood that night just couldn't be contained. Surrounded by his ever-present backup vocalists the Jordanaires, he then croons the turgid ballad "Love Me" while relishing its doo-wop mawkishness for all it's worth.

Strapping on his guitar, Elvis offers an elaborately solemn introduction to his final song of the night:

"Ladies and gentlemen, uh, could I have your attention, please. I'd like to tell you that we're gonna do a...sad song for you. This song is one of the saddest songs we've ever heard. It really tells a story, friends. Beautiful lyrics. It goes something like this..."

The song, of course, is "Hound Dog", and Elvis finally cuts loose and becomes the hip-shaking rock and roller that we all envision him to be. Rarely does an entertainer seem to be having this much fun (much of it at his own expense) as he shares in the joyful mood of the audience.

Not only that, but old-fashioned Ed himself, once reticent to book Elvis on his show, clearly loves the guy. At one point he even drops his usual stern countenance and jokes, "I can't figure this thing out, you know he just does this [shakes his hips] and everybody yells!" Elvis humbly ends his appearance by telling the audience, "Until we meet ya again, may God bless ya as He's blessed me. Thank ya very much."

The January 6, 1957 show begins with a medley of "Hound Dog", "Love Me Tender", and "Heartbreak Hotel", but something seems a little odd. That's because this is the famous show in which, due to complaints from more conservative viewers about The Pelvis' lewd bodily motions, Elvis is never seen from the waist down.

The segue from "Hound Dog" into "Love Me Tender" couldn't be more extreme, and Elvis' goofy facial expression conveys his weariness of singing it. He breaks loose again with lively versions of "Don't Be Cruel", "Too Much", and "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again" before ending with a heartfelt spiritual, "Peace in the Valley." Ed Sullivan, who has obviously had a ball during his experience with Elvis, doesn't let him get away without offering this endorsement of the controversial rocker: "I wanted to say to Elvis and the country, that this is a real decent, fine boy."

The 1.33:1 full-screen image and Dolby Digital sound (5.1 surround and original 2.0 mono) are as good as the original kinescope elements permit. A wealth of interesting bonus material includes:

--Why Ed Didn't Host Elvis' First Appearance
--Elvis and Ed: Intros and Promos
--Special Elvis Moments
--Caught on Celluloid: The First Moving Pictures of Elvis
--Jerry Schilling's Home Movies
--Remembering Ed and Elvis (interviews)

Totally belying his image as an inarticulate yokel, the engaging performer that we see here is a shimmering entity brimming with intriguing paradoxes. Retaining a respectful humility that ingratiated him to the older crowd, he was also effortlessly cool, cocky, and irreverent just by being himself. He could be heart-on-his-sleeve sincere even as he mischievously poked fun at the superficial nature of his image, as playfully self-mocking and self-aware as anyone with such immense, intense popularity could be. Most of all, as ELVIS: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW--THE CLASSIC PERFORMANCES reminds us, he was a beautiful, almost mystical creature who burned brightly long before he began to burn out.

Buy it at
Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows: The Performances


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