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'Elvis': The Way Binder Wants To Remember Him

January 01, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

Elvis Presley was rock's greatest star.

He didn't invent rock 'n' roll, but he largely defined both the music and attitude in the '50s.

Elvis sold more records than anyone in the history of pop (an estimated 1 billion ) and he has been cited as the main inspiration by almost anyone you're likely to nominate as a challenger for the greatest rocker title. That includes challengers ranging from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen.

Because Elvis would have been 50 next Tuesday, we're sure to be hearing and reading a lot about him this month.

Two of the most ambitious offerings will be on cable television. "Elvis: One Night With You" debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO, while "Elvis Presley's Graceland" premieres on Showtime at 9 p.m. next Tuesday.

Both shows were directed by Steve Binder, a veteran television producer-director who helped orchestrate one of the most dramatic moments in Elvis' career: Presley's 1968 NBC-TV special.

"Elvis: One Night With You" consists of largely unseen concert footage taped in connection with the '68 show and it's a must for Presley fans.

Presley's talent wilted in the early and mid-'60s through a series of increasingly hapless movies and equally bland records. The '68 special, which Binder directed, re-introduced the rawer, more vital Presley to American audiences.

The highlight of that show was a brief excerpt of Presley going through some of his old hits and other favorites in an informal concert session with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, his guitarist and drummer from the '50s.

In "Elvis: One Night With You," we get to see the entire 60-minute concert session--and it's a gem. Among the songs: "One Night," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" and "Blue Christmas."

Binder's Showtime production is less noteworthy: a tour of Graceland, the Presley mansion in Memphis, hosted by Elvis' ex-wife, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley. The show was loosely patterned, Binder acknowledges, after the Jacqueline Kennedy's Emmy-winning tour of the White House in 1962.

Presley fans will enjoy the glimpses of rooms previously off-limits to the public, but the special has a flat, unconvincing tone that is bogged down with several key people in Elvis' life recycling old anecdotes. Because of contractual problems with RCA Records, there isn't even any Elvis music in the show.

Perhaps the difference between the two specials can be summarized this way: "Elvis Presley's Graceland" is only about Elvis. "Elvis: One Night With You" is Elvis.

Binder was a hot young TV producer-director in 1968 when asked by NBC to get involved with the Presley special. The network had already signed a contract with Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, to do the show, but things were moving slowly. Binder, whose open, energetic demeanor still invites the use of word youthful, suspects the NBC executives felt he could better relate to Elvis, who was 33 at the time.

In his West Hollywood office, Binder recalled the initial meeting with Presley.

"Elvis, Col. Parker and the entourage came over to the office one afternoon and the only condition I made is that I could talk to Elvis alone," Binder recalled. "The thing that impressed me about Elvis was that there was no star ego, no false front.

"I sensed that he was real nervous about doing this. He hadn't been in front of the people for 10 years (except in movies) and he wasn't sure whether they would accept him again."

To Binder, the challenge was to show the raw Elvis, not the homogenized figure that Elvis had become in the movies.

"The original arrangement between the Colonel and NBC was for 'a quick, hello-goodby format: no talk and a lot of Christmas songs,' " Binder related.

"I told Elvis that concept would never make it as far as I was concerned. I thought the reason his career had sort of ground down to a stop was that nobody knew the rock 'n' roll Elvis anymore . . . He had been reduced to singing the songs that guys who wrote lousy movie scripts were writing for him. I sensed that frustration in Elvis."

Binder got Elvis' approval to put together a show with a much wider and more hard-edge scope than originally envisioned. Still, the key segment--the one shown in the HBO special--was largely an afterthought.

After each day's shooting or rehearsal on the NBC lot in Burbank, Presley would get together with cronies and unwind by singing old country, blues or gospel tunes, sometimes for five or six hours.

"I thought that was great--a relaxed Elvis that we had never been able to see," Binder said. "I wanted to tape it, not knowing at the time what exactly to do with it. I wasn't allowed to actually bring the cameras in the dressing room, but the Colonel did say we could re-create the session on stage if Elvis retained total approval. If Elvis didn't like the footage, it would be erased."

Two 60-minute sessions were arranged, one for 6 p.m and one for 8 p.m.

But they almost didn't come off.

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