As it was ages since I watched this documentary TV special (it originally aired in 1987), I didn't quite know what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well it had withstood the ravages of time. By mixing still shots (many of them by Alfred Wertheimer) with filmed footage it effectively tells the story of Elvis' breakthrough year, 1956.
I especially liked the way the documentary early on switches from a clip of Perry Como singing his recent hit “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” on NBC to one of Elvis ripping into “Baby Let's Play House” over at CBS. This kind of editing successfully manages to put the point across that Elvis had “nothing in common with the white bread tunes from the Hit Parade of 1956.”
Some of the vintage clips I remembered, like the one in color from Elvis on stage during his SUN days. Really incredible stuff! There are also some great footage of Elvis in Las Vegas, both while performing and visiting Liberace's show, as well as film of him on stage in his gold lame suit.
But in the end it's the TV appearances that make Elvis '56 so exciting. After all, this is what it looked like when Elvis entered the living rooms of millions of Americans, many of whom didn't know what to make of him at first.
Watching Elvis sing his raw and bluesy version of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show is maybe the most telling example, as this performance caused an outraged reaction in newspapers across the country. What an humiliating experience it must have been to sing the same song dressed in a tuxedo to a real dog on The Steve Allen Show about a month later.
Thankfully, this was to become the only glimpse of the “new Elvis.” A few days later, Elvis made an outdoor concert appearance in Memphis at which he announced, “You know, those people in New York are not gonna change me none. I'm gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”
Even though it's 25 years since its original release, Elvis '56 still feels surprisingly fresh. In my opinion it manages to tell the story of the 21 year old singer's rise to national and international stardom in a credible way. And to think that it all happened during just one year!
A final note: in the book Elvis: His Life From A to Z there's the following passage about Elvis '56: “Particularly interesting were the recording-session tapes of “Hound Dog” and “Don't Be Cruel.” If my ears don't betray me it sounds like authors Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius were fooled by directors Alan and Susan Raymond using studio banter from a completely different session, one done many years later for the movie G.I. Blues.