Fifty years on, this made-for-TV special feels weirdly old and new at the same time.
Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its broadcast, this made-for-TV special, which revived the ailing career of the then slightly foxed superstar Elvis Presley, continues to enchant. That is partly because the singer is on form here, performing in a way he probably never would again, harking back to his charismatic 1950s pre-army, pre-Hollywood prime.
Electrically alive on a TV soundstage in front of an adoring crowd (who are a fascinating spectacle in their own right, dressed in 60s finery, all beehives and prim collars), Presley revels in their worship and glows with joy in his own God-given talent. It is a reminder of what a skilled musician he was, especially during the bits where he jams on stools with his old backing band buddies, including the incomparable lead guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana.
The singer manages to make a medley of some of his biggest hits – including Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog and Lawdy, Miss Clawdy – sound newly minted. But even more of a hoot is watching him in the outtakes make fun of Richard Harris’s hit MacArthur Park, right down to the pitchy warbling.
Part of the special’s appeal lies in its status as an artefact of the times. The director, Steve Binder, interviewed on the sound stage by the singer’s widow, Priscilla, recalls that they were shooting not long after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
That reminder filters how we see the section two-thirds in, when Presley pays tribute to gospel music and the legacy it passed to rock’n’roll, accompanied by black backing singers (search it frame by frame and you might spot Darlene Love) and a solo male dancer who steals the show with agonised, acrobatic precision.
The show feels weirdly old and new at the same time. Presley’s costumes look as if they could have walked off a recent Gucci or YSL catwalk, while the handheld camerawork has a very 21st-century feel, even as the long-held superimpositions and corny karate sequences anchor it back in late-60s televisual conventions.