Five years before he achieved broadcast history with his legendary 1973 global satellite telecast, Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii
, Elvis Presley brought a less grandiose but far more urgent mission to this Christmas season network special: isolated from his original audience after a long sojourn on Hollywood soundstages, and threatened by the vibrancy and social gravity of rock, the King sought nothing less than to reclaim his throne.
More than three decades later, what has since become known as Elvis: '68 Comeback Special looms as the Memphis icon's most substantial achievement as a stage performer. If the candy-colored sets and hyperactive choreography of its larger production numbers smack of its network packagers' desperation to be hip, Elvis himself rises to a riveting, assured performance at the peak of his powers. Looking fit and relaxed, and sheathed in black leather, he covers a shrewd song list encompassing early rockabilly hits, gospel (albeit rendered unintentionally hilarious by its florid dance routines), and comparatively restrained ballads.
Standout performances include two intimate stage sets that put him literally within his fans' reach, most strikingly in a brief reunion with four of his earliest bandmates (including guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana). The latter segment is only a brief sample of a session posthumously released on video as One Night with You, which is, if anything, even better than this terrific portrait of a towering American artist. --Sam Sutherland