Rocking reflections: Paramount revisits Elvis Presley’s 1968 special

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Jay Bobbin / TV Media
Elvis Presley, as seen in “Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback"

Elvis Presley, as seen in “Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback"

Elvis Presley’s legendary 1968 television special was a turning point not only for him but for many of the other people involved in it.

One was producer-director Steve Binder, who then was building a reputation for staging performance shows such as the TV series “Hullabaloo” … and who candidly told the “King of Rock 'n' Roll" that the latter’s career was “in the toilet,” so he needed to do the NBC-televised hour. The result quickly became a legendary piece of television, and Paramount looks back at it in the new offering “Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback,” which starts streaming Tuesday, Aug. 15 – the night before the 46th anniversary of Presley’s death, and following the project’s limited showings in movie theaters globally.

While incorporating many segments from the original show, “Reinventing Elvis” examines Presley’s relationship not only with Binder (who narrates the bulk of the film) but also with Col. Tom Parker, the famously strict manager who kept tight control over Presley. A number of the interviewees claim that Parker felt threatened by his star’s collaboration with Binder, who encouraged Presley to pursue innovation and creativity. Singers Darius Rucker and Drake Milligan are among those who offer comments, along with journalist Alanna Nash and Anita Mann, who was a dancer in the 1968 special.

Also an executive producer of “Reinventing Elvis,” Binder maintains that he’s “real pleased with what they did” creatively with the documentary, though he admits he was skeptical at first. “When I was approached to get involved, I said, ‘There are so many third-party stories about Elvis, why do we need another one?’ Then they pitched me their idea, and it really covered 1968 as a whole. I was rooting for them from the sidelines, and I certainly was responsive to any of their requests for more material.”

Music documentary veteran John Scheinfeld – who also has done projects on John Lennon, John Coltrane, Herb Alpert and Harry Nilsson – directed “Reinventing Elvis,” which also has music industry legend Spencer Proffer, a longtime Binder associate, as the executive producer who conceived it.

“There are so few of us alive today who were there when it all happened,” Binder reflects on the 1968 Elvis show. “There have been specials and books about it, but I never felt that anybody who was there told the real story.

“I was there from the beginning to the end, and it’s so gratifying today to realize what the public response to it was. A number of years ago, somebody approached me and said, ‘Steve, you realize that no matter what you did in the past or do from here on in, you’ll be remembered mostly for the Elvis comeback special’ … and I think they told the truth. It’s probably a lot more popular today than it was when it was first broadcast.”

Elvis Presley in his 1968 comeback special

Elvis Presley in his 1968 comeback special

The irony is that the special – which also involved studio musicians who became known, quite famously, as The Wrecking Crew – almost didn’t happen, since Binder points out that just before the taping, Presley got a serious case of cold feet. The director always has liked to make a show that can’t happen unless the specific star participates, as he had done earlier with singers Petula Clark and Leslie Uggams, and with the celebrated 1964 concert movie “The T.A.M.I. Show” (in which The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys were among the featured acts).

Once Binder convinced Presley to step onto the set, the superstar became increasingly comfortable. However, for as close as they got over the course of making the special, they never had direct communication again afterward. “Billy Goldenberg, our musical director on the show, used to call me,” Binder recalls, “and he would say things like, ‘Elvis wants to know how you are and how you’re feeling.’ It was never first-person, though. We all met at our costume designer’s apartment in Hollywood to have sort of a farewell party, and that was the last time I ever saw or talked to Elvis.”

The entirety of “Reinventing Elvis” serves as a reminder of how major a star Presley was in his time. “We’re so lucky that we partnered with Paramount ,” Binder notes, “because many of Elvis’ movies were done at Paramount, so we were given access to their library and were able to include clips from his films. That was just a stroke of luck, and it sure adds to this. None of the other projects that have been done about the 1968 special were able to clear those rights, I guess.”

For Binder, “Reinventing Elvis” has a personal significance that goes beyond his literally having called the shots on the classic special that it’s about. “I have nine grandkids and a great-grandchild,” he reports, “and the fact that they're able to relive this with me now while I’m here is such a bonus and such a pleasure. And it just looks so fresh, even to me, which is very rare when you look back at an old show.”

“Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback” arrives Tuesday, Aug. 15, on Paramount .