Revisiting Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special With Its Director
When Elvis Presley was filming the intro to his fabled “’68 Comeback Special,” the program’s director had an unusual problem. “I ended up having too many Elvises in the background,” filmmaker Steve Binder tells Rolling Stone. “I hate to fire anybody, so I decided to use them all. We were afraid the scaffold was not gonna hold the weight. We were sure we were gonna have a major lawsuit if it collapsed.”
Today, the image of the King, flanked by dozens of Elvises and wearing black clothing and a tough look on his face, has become iconic. The special, known then simply as Elvis, relaunched his singing career and proved that, after nearly a decade of making movies, he was still one of the most thrilling performers around. Now Binder is hoping the film reaches a new audience when the special gets a theatrical release this month to mark its 50th anniversary. Fathom Events will screen the film on August 16th and 20th at various theaters around the world.
“These screenings mean a lot to me,” Binder says. “Aside from all the Elvis fans worldwide – and there are millions of them – I think it’s good that the younger generation who have only been sort of brainwashed about how important Elvis was to the world really get a chance to see him.”
As an added bonus, the filmmaker sat for a 19-minute interview with Presley’s widow, Priscilla, for a feature that will accompany the screening. In a scene from it premiering here, Binder discusses the rehearsal process, how the set list came together and stories about Presley’s tough-as-nails manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and his demands for a Christmas song in the special. As Binder recalls, the clash led to a standoff and Presley had to step in.
Binder has been thinking intensely about Presley lately, since he’s also authored an upcoming book – Comeback ’68: The Story of the Elvis Special – which he’s filled with photos, memorabilia (like the script his writers drafted for the “improv section” of the special) and his own personal recollections; he’ll be unveiling it at Elvis Week in Graceland this month. “I wrote the book because I was reading all these books about Elvis and [the authors] had to hear the story third-party,” he says. “Some were accurate in some areas and not in others, and I felt that I was able to clarify a lot of the stories that people tell and have heard.” Additionally, he’s been consulting on an upcoming NBC special “with superstars taking a shot at the songs from the ’68 special,” as well as a documentary about the special and working with filmmaker Baz Luhrmann on an Elvis picture he’ll be making next year.
The filmmaker says that part of the reason the special was such a success was because he was able to put Presley at ease. Leading up to the show, the King was nervous – as drummer D.J. Fontana and singer Darlene Love told Rolling Stone last year – so Binder made it so that Presley didn’t have to think about much more than performing. “My biggest contribution was saying, ‘Elvis, you just make an album and I’ll put pictures to it, and I don’t want you to be aware of where the cameras are,'” he says. “With television concerts up to that point, you put a piece of tape on the floor and told the artist to stand there, and you shot it all from the front. I was determined to make it like a real concert and three-dimensional.” He also worked with his production staff to make Elvis look larger than life, dressing him in bespoke costumes and erecting the giant E-L-V-I-S sign behind him (taking inspiration from The Judy Garland Show).
When they were rehearsing, Presley asked to move into the studio to shorten his commute. “He said, ‘Maybe if I get a dressing room big enough, I can put a bed in there,'” Binder recalls with a laugh. “That’s what we did, and that was the reason I did the acoustic improv sequence. Every day after rehearsal or taping, he would go into the dressing room, and here was this incredible performer who was totally relaxed, all mussed up, having fun and sharing stories with everybody.” He brought the idea to the Colonel who stuck his nose up at it but eventually relented, leading to a memorable summit of Presley’s friends and early collaborators, like Fontana. It was loose and fun, it showed off the King’s sense of humor and it allowed him to cut loose on “Hound Dog,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” “I knew it was really the heart and soul of the show,” Binder says.
Ultimately, Binder ended up with too much good material and went rogue, cutting his own 90-minute version of the special and begging NBC to expand it from an hour-long broadcast. At the time, the execs said no, but after Presley’s death, they ran the longer cut that is now the best-known version. The special would subsequently become one of the King’s defining moments.
“The ’68 Elvis Comeback Special was so much more than a comeback, so much bigger than all it offered to Presley’s career,” Spencer Proffer, producer of the coming theatrical release, offers. “It actually paved the way for future artists to return and reinvent after a career chasm, intentional or otherwise. I’m honored to partner with Steve Binder, Fathom Events and the Authentic Brands Group in the marketing of Steve’s book, chronicling the making of the Special and its extensions on various multimedia platforms, all commemorating the Elvis comeback.”
“Elvis and his music have a place in the hearts of many fans across the globe,” Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt says. “We want to offer those people a way to experience and celebrate the anniversary of this legendary performance together, by bringing it to cinemas worldwide.”
When he thinks back on the struggles he faced to make it, Binder is especially happy about the special’s longevity. “I did it in 1968 and thought it was gonna air one time for 48 minutes and that was the end of it,” he says. “So I’m thrilled it’ll come back 50 years later.”