Monday, August 3, 2009

On DVD: "Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances"

Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show three times over the course of five months in late 1956 and early 1957—quite a surprise, considering that Sullivan had vowed in July of 1956 that the oh-so-naughty rockabilly singer and his swiveling hips would never appear on his family-friendly variety show. But when Presley appeared on Steve Allen’s competing show and stomped Sullivan in the ratings, he had a change of heart. Maybe Elvis was ready for prime time after all.

Those three shows were released, in their entirety, in a box set back in 2006. The new, single-disc collection Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances presents only the Elvis clips, free of the context of the variety show that surrounded them. It makes for a slimmer presentation, and will perhaps satisfy some fans who might not want to skip through all the other acts on the previous discs. But this new disc mainly succeeds in merely exacerbating the primary flaw of the previous set, while simultaneously removing much of what made it fascinating.

The 44-minute main program contains no introductions, narration, or on-screen titles—which is a bit of a disappointment (would it have killed them to just throw a date on the screen between each show). So, in the absence of information provided by the disc, these come from Wikipedia (hope they’re right!). Presley’s first appearance, on September 9, 1956, was made not for Sullivan, but for guest host Charles Laughton; he introduces Presley, who performs via satellite from Hollywood. Nervous but charming, Elvis tells the camera that “this is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life,” and proceeds to perform “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender” (with the help of his backup vocalists, the Jordanaires). For his second set, he brings out the full band and does a tight and electrifying cover of Little Richard’s “Reddy Teddy,” before sending a get-well wish to Sullivan (out recuperating from a car accident) and doing a shortened version of “Hound Dog,” nearly drowned out by the fans screaming for his (below frame) hip gyrations.

His second appearance (his first in New York and his first with Sullivan hosting) came barely over a month later, on October 28. With the exception of Sullivan’s intro, there’s something of a sense of déjà vu to the affair—he begins by again singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” and again following it with “Love Me Tender.” Both are well-done, of course, but we can be forgiven for wondering if we’re going to hear the same set again in the same order, like the September appearance was just a dress rehearsal for when Ed got back. The second set begins with a rendition of “Love Me” that goes down nice and smooth (and is followed by Sullivan thanking the teenage audience for saving their screams for the end—they “made a promise that they wouldn’t yell during his songs”), and is followed by a spirited, full performance of “Hound Dog.” It is worth nothing that, in this rousing number, the swivel-hipped singer is viewed in a full body shot, much to the shock and chagrin of respectable families across the nation, apparently.

Appearance number three came on January 6, 1957, and begins with a medley of his biggest hits—so we get to hear “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” a third time, followed by the first appearance of “Heartbreak Hotel.” And after that, “Don’t Be Cruel” gets yet another spin. For his second set, a snappy, danceable performance of “Too Much” confirms that we appear to have gone back to the above-waist “safe zone” in the Presley photography. It’s followed by a rendition of “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” that really swings, and the closing number, “Peace in the Valley,” is just plain lovely.

Not surprisingly, the music is marvelous—there’s just too much repetition, particularly when compacted into this reel of highlights (in his review of the box set, my colleague Paul Mavis took issue with this—“Ed's show was supposed to be the very height of variety, but the same songs repeated over and over again by Elvis quickly approaches tedium”—and in that set, they’re part of a three-hour total program). Elvis’ songbook was pretty deep, even this early in his career; it’s a shame he had to keep trotting out the same hit records ad nauseam. That said, the arrangements are strong and instrumentation is solid, while Elvis is in fine voice throughout. This is Presley at his best, when he was young and hungry, full of piss and vinegar. Of course, he tamps that down in his numerous bits of between-song patter, laying on the boyish charm and aw-sucks charisma and selling himself to middle America as a good, clean, wholesome entertainer. He always comes across as humble and thankful (noting, for example, that he “got exactly 282 teddy bears over the Christmas holiday”). Ed does his part as well, joining Elvis at the close of the third performance to assure America that “this is a real, decent, fine boy,” shaking his hand, again noting that he is a “very nice boy.” It sounds a little condescending, frankly, but it did the job: the Sullivan seal of approval meant something to American households, who tuned in to these shows in droves and continued to buy his records in staggering volume.

Any serious music fan or student of pop culture should have Elvis’ seminal Sullivan appearances in their DVD library; they marked a turning point in television and music history, and in spite of the monotony of the song selection, the tunes are terrific. However, this slender volume is currently priced a mere $2.49 less (on Amazon) than the more robust three-disc 2006 set, which includes all of these performances and extras, but within the context of the three shows, seen there in their entirety. Simply stated, Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances is a fine program but a bad buy.

"Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances" arrives on DVD Tuesday, August 4th.

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