For $24.99, you can get your hands on one of the most important performances of Elvis Presley’s career in the gift shop at Graceland — and pretty much nowhere else, save for two documentaries that revive it on screen in 2018.
Among the souvenir magnets and multi-thousand dollar replicas of his bell-bottomed show suits, the Elvis: ‘68 Comeback – Special Edition DVD is on a shelf with the rest of the anniversary retrospectives and concert films in the back of the shop. Its cover bears a blurry photo of a leather-clad Presley before a cherry red backdrop. No girls, no gold, no belt buckle the size of a dinner plate; just the King with his guitar, hair uncharacteristically tousled out of place and a sheen of perspiration illuminating his (then, still) defined cheekbones.
The special was taped exactly 50 years ago today, with the shoot wrapping on June 29, 1968 in Burbank, California. When it eventually aired that December, it fully revived Presley: For seven years leading up to that broadcast, an aggressive film contract kept him out of the studio and glued to the studio lot instead. His last public musical performance before that took place in 1961, rendering Presley a marquee player and soundtrack-making machine largely thanks to Viva Las Vegas and the rest of the Hollywood romps that made him rich and creatively frustrated in the meantime. It’s not that he was absent from music during this run: he released a whopping 13 soundtracks from 1961 and 1968, but hadn’t scored a top ten Hot 100 hit in over three years. By the end of 1969, he hit the top five twice, including his final No. 1 in “Suspicious Minds.”
In the first shot of the special, the lens is trained on him so tightly that all we see is his face, his microphone and a scarlet scarf peeking out from the satin collar of his shirt. His voice is low and slow: If you’re lookin’ for trouble, you’ve come to the right place/ If you’re lookin’ for trouble, just look right in my face. We don’t really have a choice until the camera pans out and the lights come up to reveal a grid of men striking Presleyan silhouettes behind him. Their shadows hit a new pose with every beat as he plows into “Guitar Man” off 1967’s Clambake soundtrack, buoyant, back in his element and utterly relieved to be there.
The following hour-and-half is a faithful concert film, cabaret and lesson all in one production. It presents Presley at his best, but also Presley in vulnerable human, an appreciative student of gospel and R&B who makes a point to sit down with an acoustic guitar to howl through “That’s All Right Mama” — his Arthur Crudup cover that won over Sam Phillips at Sun Studios and served as his first single — and prove he knows where he and his music come from.
You can’t stream Elvis: ‘68 Comeback – Special Edition, though you can find various DVDs scattered across eBay and Amazon for a small fortune outside of the Graceland gift shop. But two current documentaries rightly celebrate this performance and attempt to unpack the rock icon’s complicated life, all while proving how integral he remains in American pop culture — and how he continues to represent the American dream as its eternal champion and tragic victim.
In April, Elvis Presley: The Searcher — the two-part documentary executive-produced by former wife Priscilla Presley and Jon Landau, writer/producer and longtime Bruce Springsteen manager — premiered on HBO. Director Thom Zimny has numerous Springsteen-related documentary credits to his name, and The Searcher reflects this expertise, as well as the extensive collective Rolodex of all involved, and Zimmy’s unfettered and unprecedented access to the Graceland archives. Testimony from Priscilla, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris and numerous friends and acquaintances of Presley’s lend an authoritative and personal touch to The Searcher, as does a wealth of archival footage — including interviews from the late Tom “Colonel” Parker, Presley’s aggressive, overbearing manager and Vernon Presley, his father — that offers snapshots of his high school days, those early gigs in Memphis and his days in Graceland.
The Searcher borrows the ‘68 special opening for its own introductory sequence, and scenes from the comeback pepper the rest of the film. It serves as the officially sanctioned documentary to handle Presley’s life with care, while gently and firmly setting the record straight — politely addressing the less savory aspects of his being, as if to say there’s no point in further deepening the drama when the tabloids sufficiently salivated over every indiscretion and dazed night in a casino ballroom.
Yes, Presley’s rock n’ roll was built on a foundation of black music and country; The Searcher offers that it wasn’t simply appropriation but appreciation, that he was a Beale Street regular and gave credit where it was due by speaking on the richness of gospel and R&B at any given opportunity. (Petty says that producer Sam Phillips’ work with Presley at Sun Records, and this act of repackaging black music for white audiences for a white performer, was motivated by “noble reasons, not just commercial.”) Yes, Presley was a drug addict; The Searcher directly attributes this to his time spent in the Army, when soldiers were given speed to stay up during the night shift, and turned to sleeping pills to counter the speed.
And yes, Presley fell in love with a teenager, married her after a long courtship, had a child with her, cheated on her and eventually drove her away. The Searcher handles Elvis and Priscilla’s love more delicately than any other subject, with Priscilla’s testimony echoing that of her 1986 memoir, Elvis & Me, without digging too deeply into Presley’s disturbingly controlling nature and the havoc his career wreaked on their marriage.
If Presley embodied the American dream, Graceland was a brick and mortar manifestation of that throughout the most tumultuous times in his life and American history — and The Searcher explores both metaphors throughout. The Searcher spends ample time on his humble beginnings growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, his service in the Army and his rags-to-riches story. By the time we get to Graceland, with its mirrored walls and custom furniture, Springsteen speaks on how the Presley estate, with its name rooted in Presley’s love for gospel, is “an idealized home, a perfect symbol of someone who’s come up from the bottom and enjoyed the best of what the country has to offer.”
Zimny’s camera glides through the rooms of Graceland in between archival clips, and it rests on the ‘68 special playing on the TV in the living room more than once. The focus, once again, remains on Presley in spite of what’s going down — or burning down — outside the frame. The Searcher only briefly mentions what was happening in the world around him during that production: Bobby Kennedy was shot just as he was preparing to return to the stage; Memphis was still feeling the aftershock of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination a short drive away. Priscilla addresses his distance from politics and conflict at one point: “he didn’t get involved in politics. It was the one thing you didn’t do: an entertainer was to entertain.”
The Searcher may wrestle Presley’s story from the national grip on his myth while fact-checking American folklore, but The King — Eugene Jarecki’s documentary that drives Presley’s ‘63 Rolls-Royce across the country and unravels his legacy in the backseat during the trip — takes the complete opposite approach. Though The King shares a couple of experts with The Searcher — namely Jerry Schilling, a close associate and friend of Presley’s, and Emmylou Harris — it doesn’t offer an official presentation of his life from those who knew him, but an enthusiastic (if not awkward and careening at times) interpretation of it as told and embraced by the public.
Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Van Jones, The Wire’s creator, David Simon, Ashton Kutcher, Mike Myers, M. Ward and Chuck D are among those who discuss Presley’s life and work, and even jab at and correct the director over the course of the film. (Simon ragging on Jarecki for picking the Rolls over the more appropriate, American-made Cadillac for the journey is a highlight.) The King respectfully indicts where The Searcher explains, particularly when it comes to offering sociopolitical context. As Zimny’s rock documentary experience elevated The Searcher, Jarecki’s passions color The King: His previous films explore American politics, war and history (2011’s Reagan; 2005’s Why We Fight), the war on drugs (2012’s The House I Live In) and economics (2010’s Freakonomics), which account for his tendency to push the Presley As American Dream Vessel narrative into places that serve his mission more than the artist’s.
Simon, correctly, sums up the “entire American experience” as cultural appropriation. Chuck D rapped that “Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant s–t to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain” in Public Enemy’s 1990 manifesto, “Fight the Power,” but unpacks that for The King. He traces the black roots of Presley’s music and supports its meld — “Culture is meant to be shared” — and echoes Petty’s point from The Searcher, that Phillips “was a business guy, who tried to sell those records with black folks, could not get ‘em across, found a guy who could sell a black sound with a white face. He knew how to sell to America.” He also points out that you didn’t see Presley shouldering up to King during Civil Rights marches, while Jones mentions that Elvis “had peers and contemporaries who made braver choices.” “I don’t give Elvis Presley a pass because I know how much power he had,” he continues. “And I know what he could’ve done with that power.”
The criticisms don’t overwhelm the very real appreciation those assembled for The King have for Presley and his work, but deepen it — especially in regards to the ‘68 special, which renowned rock journalist and author Greil Marcus describes as “a man breaking out of prison” for Jarecki. Like The Searcher, it favors the complicated grey area between the black and white. The King is clumsy at times, bouncing between current political predicaments and Presley’s timeline, but it maintains that Presley remains the quintessential American icon because the problematic aspects of his being are as crucial to the legend as the celebrated ones.
And though the structure of the narrative disintegrates as Jarecki strains to connect Presley’s fall to the 2016 presidential election, he’s not wrong to try to draw as many parallels between his story and the present day as much as possible. Presley remains omnipresent in 2018, from Camila Cabello working a cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” into her set list to Jon Pardi invoking the King at a benefit before the ACM Awards to Kacey Musgraves singing of a “Velvet Elvis” on Golden Hour. Half a century from the taping of the ‘68 special, The Searcher and The King both succeed in proving that a legend is always relevant — much like the ‘68 special did, when fans knew exactly where to look for trouble, no matter how much time had passed.
The King is currently playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles; for more information on where to see it in a city near you, click here.