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'Elvis' Is Back in the Building, Thanks to Technology

Pop Beat: Two decades after his death, the King (on video) and his band (on stage) go on a tour that re-creates his magic for old, new fans.

March 21, 1998|ELYSA GARDNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Shortly past 8 p.m. Thursday, there was an Elvis sighting in a midtown Manhattan concert venue. Almost 6,000 people bore witness to the reincarnation of the most celebrated and mythicized star in rock history--and none of them appeared particularly shocked or surprised.

Indeed, the near-capacity crowd that showed up at Radio City Music Hall for the New York premiere of "Elvis--The Concert" seemed eager to suspend its disbelief for 2 1/2 hours and witness the King rising from the ashes via the miracle of modern technology.

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The show--which concludes an eight-date run Sunday in Philadelphia (no L.A. dates have been scheduled)--blends footage culled from Presley's concert films with live performances by the musicians who recorded and toured with him.

A sort of trial production, "Elvis in Concert '97," was a big success when it debuted in Memphis last August, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Presley's death.

At Radio City, the late star's image was projected on a 20-foot screen that loomed over a band led by Presley's old musical director, Joe Guercio, and featuring Presley's backing vocal groups the Sweet Inspirations and J.D. Sumner & the Stamps. (All sound except for Presley's vocals had been deleted from the concert footage.)

Though these musicians are clearly no longer spring chickens, they all played and sang with a crisp, exuberant virtuosity.

In a touch that was at once funny and poignant, images of the supporting players were shown, in both their present and more youthful incarnations, interacting with Presley on two smaller screens.

The Sweet Inspirations, for instance, appeared as young temptresses wearing short skirts and Afros and as middle-aged cheerleaders clad in what looked like glittery sweatsuits.

The screens alternately displayed pictures of the singer at different stages in his life and career, as well as his fans, who were presented here as predominantly young and female and far from shy about expressing their adulation.

In contrast to his colleagues, Presley remained untouched by time. Although most of the footage was shot during the '70s--its gauzy quality was an obvious and sometimes distracting anachronism--it seemed carefully edited to show him still looking relatively fit and virile, his stomach lean under that ever-present flashy white suit and his famous pelvis shimmying energetically.

Only occasionally, such as during a rushed, lackluster medley of classic hits including "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," did Presley appear bloated and enervated.

Nonetheless, it was the Vegas-era, lounge-lizard Elvis, as opposed to the sizzling, sinuous entertainer who captivated America back in the '50s, who dominated these proceedings.

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Whether trailing Presley as he reached into the audience to give cheesy, staged kisses to nubile babes, or capturing his mannered, melodramatic renditions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "My Way," these clips rather unwittingly documented the icon's descent into self-parody.

When the singer embarked at one point on a mumbled soliloquy about his boyhood, it was difficult not to think of Howard Stern's irreverent impressions of him.

None of this, however, seemed to interfere with the audience's appreciation.

For the many fans in attendance who belonged to the pre-MTV generation, the event was pure nostalgic bliss; for the others, it was perhaps a strange and charming adventure into a world in which kitsch was served straight up, without irony or apology.

When Elvis finally left the building, he took plenty of satisfied customers with him.

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