March 13, 2008
At the crossroads with Elvis
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Presley had not appeared in front of a live audience in years. Binder reassured Presley, telling him that if they worked together, "he could focus on making records, while I would put pictures to his music." Presley signed on.
One day during rehearsals at the Binder-Howe offices, Binder said he saw Presley looking out at Sunset Boulevard -- and in what is now a legendary story -- Binder asked Presley what he thought would happen if he walked out on Sunset by himself. Presley asked Binder what he thought would happen. Binder thought about it and said: "Nothing." A few days later, Presley turned to him in the office and said, "Let's go."
Much has been made of what happened next: Presley stood with Binder on the street in front of the office building, at first tentative, then surprised that no one recognized him, then somewhat disappointed that no one recognized him and then, finally, uncomfortable. Presley retreated back to the offices.
The special was recorded at NBC's Burbank Studio No. 4. Presley was so impressed with the dressing room suites that he decided to live at the studio during the recording, asking that an upright piano be brought into his suite.
Binder noticed that Presley and his musicians would hang out in the suite's living room, before and after rehearsals, joking around, playing songs, talking about old times. Binder realized that this is where Presley was most comfortable, and that the public had never seen this side of him.
Binder decided that he wanted to film these "jam sessions," and after a consultation with the Colonel, they decided to recreate that feeling by having Presley and his original band members (who at first were not part of the special) seated in a circle on chairs on a small stage, surrounded by an audience. The special itself used these performances sparingly but to great effect. (Over the years, those "improvisations" have taken on a life of their own, as reassembled into a separate special aired by HBO, "One Night With Elvis.")
Watching the special recently in my office, I was struck by how good it still is. Presley's vitality, his sense of humor, his charisma, his sex appeal and his connection to his music and his love of performing come through in an indelible fashion (only some of the dance numbers seem dated). No one who sees the "Elvis" special can doubt his appeal or his talent.
"Elvis" aired on Dec. 3, 1968, and captured 42 percent of the entire viewing audience. It was NBC's biggest ratings victory for the entire year and the season's No. 1-rated show. However, after the show aired, Binder never really spoke to Presley again (he believes that was the Colonel's doing).
For the "Elvis" special Binder was paid a contractual one-time payment of $32,000 for producing and directing, which included the first two reruns of the special, and a $3,500 payment for each of the third and fourth reruns. That was it. No DVD or ancillary rights (they didn't exist). And certainly no "artistic rights of control": every re-edit or rerelease of the "Elvis" show since, in regular and deluxe editions, including the HBO special, and whatever will be screened at the Cinerama Dome, were done without consulting Binder (or paying him a penny more).
Nonetheless, Binder recalls "Elvis" fondly.
Binder believes that during the making of the special, Presley reconnected to making music he believed in. Presley told Binder he had found his "freedom" -- the ability to be himself again. But that freedom was short-lived.
After the special, a galvanized Presley recorded such hits as "Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto" and "Kentucky Rain." He also appeared for several record-breaking performances in Las Vegas before embarking on a national tour. Binder saw Presley perform then, saying "he was fantastic."
However, a year later, he saw Presley perform again and found that he had lost his spark and was bored. (Neither time did he go backstage to see Presley.).
"I knew then," Binder said, "that it was over."
In his last Vegas performances, an overweight Presley became a parody of himself, a Liberace-like performer who turned his back to his audience and increasingly found it hard to finish a show, or a song for that matter.
On Aug. 16, 1977, Presley was found dead in his Memphis home, Graceland, the victim of a heart attack, his health having been compromised by drug abuse. He was 42.
For Binder, the "Elvis" special was but one landmark in a career that continued to expand and unfold. Binder went on to direct many, many, many more specials for a wide variety of stars, including (to name but a very few) Barry Manilow, Diana Ross (including the memorable "Diana Ross in Central Park"), Patti Labelle, "Divas 2000" for VH-1 (featuring Ross, Donna Summer, Mariah Carey, Faith Hill and Beyonce); events such as the half-time show at the 1996 Super Bowl, "The Star Wars Holiday Special" (a sought-after bootleg -- by geeks that is); films such as "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" (for which James Whitmore was nominated for best actor), and was involved in the careers of many recoding artists, among them Seals & Croft. He is currently managing the career of Italian singing star Nicola Congiu.
Binder, for one, certainly never imagined that 40 years later, audiences would still be gathering to watch the "Elvis" special.
But people keep coming back to the special. I think I know why: "The Comeback Special" presents Presley at a juncture -- his past, his potential, his talent -- and the intimation of the tragic path he would unfortunately choose.