BOOTLEG FILES 391: “Elvis in Concert” (1977 television concert starring Elvis Presley).
LAST SEEN: The entire program is available on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There has never been a home entertainment release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Very unlikely.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I put off doing a Bootleg Files column on Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Luna” because of my distaste toward the film’s subject matter. Well, there was another prominent bootleg title that I’ve avoided writing about for years, albeit for a different reason: “Elvis in Concert,” the final video production featuring Elvis Presley. I saw “Elvis in Concert” when it was first broadcast on October 3, 1977 (I was nine days away from my thirteenth birthday). I never saw the concert again until earlier this week, when I located a bootleg posting on YouTube. My feelings towards the production remain unchanged over the years – it is one of the saddest experiences ever captured on camera.
The news that Elvis died on August 16, 1977, created an extraordinary outpouring of grief. Unlike John Lennon and Michael Jackson at the times of their respective deaths, Elvis was out of the media spotlight when he passed away. In fact, most people had not seen him since his 1973 television concert from Hawaii, when he epitomized physical and vocal perfection in his remarkable stage performance. Since Elvis made no films, gave no interviews and did not appear on national television between the Hawaii concert and his death, the majority of his fans were unaware of the physical and emotional changes that transformed him during his last four years.
Indeed, even the programming executives at CBS were unaware of what became of Elvis. In June 1977, the network announced that it would broadcast a concert from Elvis’ then-current tour. A pair of concert engagements – a June 19 show in Omaha, Neb., and a June 21 show in Rapid City, S.D. – would serve as the basis of the television special. Dwight Hemion, an award-winning director who helmed memorable TV variety shows starring Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews, was brought in to film Elvis’ performances.
What Hemion captured, however, was Elvis at his worst. The star was badly overweight, with his trademark rhinestone jumpsuit barely containing a considerable paunch. His hair was died an unnatural shade of black and teased into an excessive bouffant style – as if his barber mistook him for Ann Miller. And if the eyes are the mirror to the soul, then Elvis’ soul was exhausted – he looked around his surroundings with a vacant gaze that showed no evidence of vitality.
Vocally, Elvis was all power but no focus. Sometimes his diction was slightly slurred, and in “How Great Thou Art” he began to bellow in a manner reminiscent of Fred Flintstone reacting to a bowling ball dropped on his foot. When he managed to get his vocal skills in order, Elvis could not coordinate his physical presence. For most of the concert, he remained a stationary presence; the memory of the hip-swinging rebel of two decades earlier was nowhere to be seen when he stood motionless while singing “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog.”
Most painful, though, was Elvis’ rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” Elvis forgot the words to the song’s monologue interlude and improvised with jokey comments that were inappropriate for the presentation. Hemion was forced to edit out the performance lapse, replacing it with brief interviews involving Elvis’ fans while the song’s music played low on the soundtrack.
Actually, Elvis’ fans play an unusually large role in “Elvis in Concert.” Throughout the production, Elvis devotees speak grandly about how the singer impacted their lives. Hemion may have gone out of his way to put twentysomething Elvis fans on camera in order to give the impression that Elvis still had a youth audience. However, when the camera panned across the audiences of the Omaha and Rapid City concerts, it was obvious that Elvis’ concert-attending devotees were mostly matronly late-middle-aged women.
To pad the show further, Hemion also included a lengthy interview with Elvis’ father, which was taped in a hotel suite. Elvis himself, however, was never interviewed for the concert. Outside of a brief on-stage mention of the heat generated by the television lights, Elvis never acknowledged Hemion or the production he was creating.
The CBS programmers were reportedly aghast when they first saw “Elvis in Concert” and considered shelving it, with the hope that better footage could be culled from Elvis concert engagements scheduled for the fall. But after Elvis died, the network realized that it had the last filmed record of The King. A new segment with Elvis’ father was taped, with the elder Presley expressing thanks to the public for their outpouring of sympathy to the Presley family. This segment included the misstatement that “Elvis in Concert” was the final time Elvis performed – he actually staged five additional concerts after the Rapid City event.
When “Elvis in Concert” was first broadcast, audience reaction was overwhelmingly negative – many people felt that it desecrated Elvis’ memory to show him in such a slovenly state. However, Elvis’ recording of “My Way” from the concert was released as a single and became a gold record chart-topper. An album of the concert, which included much more music than the 12 songs featured in the TV offering, was also a chart-topper in the fall of 1977.
Public fascination with Elvis grew stronger in the months after his death, and CBS reran “Elvis in Concert” in April 1978. But after that broadcast, “Elvis in Concert” was permanently removed from circulation. To date, the Presley estate has refused to allow an official home entertainment release of the production.
For years, bootleg copies of “Elvis in Concert” have freely circulated. However, this offering only appeals to the most rabid of Elvis completists. For those who recalled Elvis in his prime, this sad denouement is difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy. The King truly deserved a better farewell.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!