Elvis' ‘Comeback Special’ Comes Back - NBC Chicago

Elvis' ‘Comeback Special’ Comes Back

The King’s famed 1968 TV show gets a theatrical release for its golden anniversary amid efforts to burnish his legacy.

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    The King as a young man.

    The shorthand version of the Elvis Presley Story could be told in about as many words as the lyrics to "Hound Dog":

    Country boy helps create rock-and-roll, becomes a 1950s superstar. He answers the call of Uncle Sam and returns in 1960 to a new world headed for social and pop-cultural revolution.

    He's consumed by a bloat of bad songs, bad movies, bad food and bad choices that ends with his death in 1977 at age 42 – an ignominious finale that overshadows his early glory years.

    His 1968 "comeback special" (aka “Singer Presents… ELVIS”) stands as a last gasp preserved in videotape, offering glimpses of past greatness and what could have been.

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    A half-century later, that NBC special is set for limited theatrical release beginning Aug. 16 – the 41st anniversary of Presley’s death.

    The movie berth also comes four months after another comeback special of sorts: "Elvis Presley: The Searcher," a two-part HBO documentary that sketched a telling portrait – not of a king, but of an artist determined to change music.

    The mini Elvis resurgence marks an overdue effort to reclaim a legacy that began when Presley opened his mouth in Sun Records' Memphis studio as a teenager.

    His 1954 Sun sessions melded country, R&B and Gospel to form a distinctive sound, pulsing with energy that bounded from jukeboxes. He went from rockabilly to rock with a string of hits for RCA.

    Presley became TV's first rock-and-roll sex symbol, firing up teenagers and scandalizing their parents with a sneer and a swivel of his hips.

    He made a quartet of good films – he finished the best of them, "Kid Creole," shortly before shedding his trademark pompadour in service to his country in 1958.

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    In addition to his hair, Presley lost momentum during his two years in the Army – and just perhaps his vision of himself.

    Unlike the Beatles, who supplanted him as a cultural force, Presley couldn't extend his growth beyond his early potential. They were four strong and (mostly) united figures, who took charge of their path.

    That's harder for superstar solo acts, which tend to be more susceptible to exploitation as they reach a hyper-reality occupied by few peers. Take Michael Jackson, whose sordid aspects of his life and death sometimes threaten to overshadow ample evidence of his genius.

    That’s an overused word, and one Presley likely would have shunned. Others might laugh at the notion of Presley as a musical genius – especially younger generations who know him more through kitschy Las Vegas Elvis impersonators than through the best of his songs.

    But more than eight decades after his birth, six decades after his peak and four decades after his death, it's time to reach back, watch and listen to the real Elvis.

    Lester Cohen/Getty Images for LARAS

    Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.