The King and I

TV Eye

Elvis, we hardly knew ye...Well, okay, maybe we knew you too well. But we still love you!

Nothing in the background of my family offers any clue as to why I came to love Elvis Presley late in life. My dad loved opera and classical, and my mother liked Sinatra, Tom Jones, and a little folk music. Neither had any tolerance for rock & roll; I grew up in the post-British invasion that rendered Elvis too unhip for words. It wasn't until after he died that I had any appreciation for him and even that was more kitsch than King. I went to Memphis in 1983 on tour with the Joe Ely band, and a bunch of us went to Graceland before it was open to the public. Elvis' uncle Vester Presley stood at the gate and nodded as we entered. We trudged up the path, stared at the mansion, pondered the gravestones and floral tributes, then followed the Elvis Presley Memorial Eternal Flame beckoning across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the souvenir shops. Somewhere, there is a picture of me with Jesse Taylor and Mike Kindred eating our Elvis hot dogs.

I have come to love Elvis, though more as an icon, since I think his musical output is brilliant in places but uneven overall. What he has come to represent -- victory over adversity though complete self-bamboozlement -- is pure pop culture.

It's not an exaggeration to say the world has not been the same since his death on August 16, 1977. Certainly, television has not been the same. His death nearly a half-year apart from his January birthdate gives fans and networks reason to raise the rhinestone banner twice a year, and boy howdy, do they ever! Beside the actual documentaries of Elvis performing live, numerous TV movies, specials, and portraits have kept the legend alive. This semi-annual celebration is spread out over numerous networks from local independents to VH1 but nobody does it better than Ted Turner and his media kingdom. Starting at midnight Friday night, 30 Hours of Elvis takes over TNT (TWC Ch 33) with enough of the King to make us all keel over on the potty. What the hell, though... it's Elvis!

Set your watches or VCRs, it starts on Friday with Charro! (8/15, 3pm), one of Presley's lamest efforts ever. This 1969 film was an effort to give Elvis a broader, more updated appeal before squeezing him into his last film role, Change of Habit. You'll have to wait until nearly midnight, though, before the next serving of Big E is dished up (which is enough time to run out and purchase lots of peanut butter, bananas, and bread) with Girl Happy (11pm). This harmless little fare from 1965 illustrates just why Presley was so unhip at the time. While the youth of America was having their attention drawn to conflict in Southeast Asia, Elvis Presley chaperoned heiress Shelley Fabares in this ludicrous plot. Also stars Jackie Coogan and Mary Ann Mobley.

Getting in late from the carousing on Friday night? Tune in for Elvis on Tour (8/16, 1am). This grim 1972 rockumentary follows the King on a number of U.S. dates -- but splashing him across multiple screens as he was beginning the battle of the bulge was not such a great idea. The drug-sodden Presley was floundering professionally at this time, and it shows. Good thing Live a Little, Love a Little (3:05am) follows. Not that this is much better plotwise than Charro!, but the contrast between the 1968 Elvis of Live A Little and the fading idol of On Tour is depressing. Good thing Live a Little is mindless; there's more time to look for Rudy Vallee, Dick Sargent, Eddie Hodges, and Sterling Holloway as guest stars. The real fun starts with 1967's Clambake (5am). If Elvis appeared disenfranchised from teens in 1965, two years later he was a complete joke. Here, our man Elvis is a rich man's son who just wants to be one of the guys, so he trades places with a water-ski instructor. Shelley Fabares, Bill Bixby, and Gary Merrill (!) try to add some color. There's a good reason 1957's Jailhouse Rock (7am) is so well-thought of, and it's a testimony to his real talent that he choreographed the famous title dance number. If the previous movies illustrated his decline too well, this was solid reason for his ascension in the music pantheon. He's young, handsome, lithe, and bursting with promise, unaware that the Army would derail him very shortly.

The effort known as Elvis: The Early Years was a genuinely interesting project sanctioned by Priscilla Presley and the estate. Six hour-long episodes are remarkably well-produced and thoughtfully scripted. The series lovingly traced Elvis from his high school days to the beginning of his musical career. Michael St. Gerard looks so much like the young Presley it's eerie, and he acts the part with aplomb. The series airs in its entirity starting the morning with Elvis: The Early Years Pt. 1 (9am), and continues with Pt. 2 (noon). It's worth taping in its entirety .

Elvis is back on the silver screen with Speedway (3:15pm), a classic 1968 Presley romp starring Nancy Sinatra. It's just as far-fetched a plot as you could hope for -- he's a stock car racer -- but it's one of the better of his later films. 1962's Follow That Dream (5:30pm) is a big, forgettable snore but the best is yet to come. Viva Las Vegas (8pm) is one of the three best Presley films (along with Jailhouse Rock and King Creole), so exuberant in its presentation that despite the countless times I've seen it, I can barely remember its plot, something about Elvis being a race car driver. Ann-Margret proves the best female foil for Elvis in any of his movies; she's vivacious, dances well, and can match him on vocals. Its exuberant soundtrack features "What'd I Say," "Come On, Everybody," and the rousing title track. If this is the version I am thinking of, the words to "Viva Las Vegas" are shown so you can sing along. I pretend I'm Ted Roddy and do just that.

Folks, it's almost all downhill from here. Neither Kid Galahad(10pm) -- Elvis as a boxer -- nor The Trouble With Girls (8/17, 12:15am) -- Elvis in the Twenties -- is notable but TNT's final offering, Elvis: That's the Way It Is (2:30am) is probably the best documentary out there on the King.

Hate Elvis? Don't miss Paul Newman and Patricia Neal in Hud (8/18, 9pm, TCM). This adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Horseman, Pass By is so Texas it seethes like a summer day with exquisitely created characters. Patricia Neal deservedly earned as Oscar for her role as Alma. Melvyn Douglas and Brandon deWilde co-star.

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