Elvis 68 Comeback Special director on how King overcame Colonel’s ‘sabotage’ | Music | Entertainment

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After spending the 1960s making a series of repetitive and mostly poor rom-com movies, Elvis Presley knew he needed to reinvent his career.

As depicted in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie, The King made his return to live musical performance in Las Vegas after the success of his epic 1968 Comeback Special.

It’s the 55th anniversary this year and as Elvis Week kicks off at Graceland a brand new documentary called Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback is set to arrive on Paramount+ on August 15 in the UK.

The NBC special’s original director Steve Binder is an executive producer and talking head on the film, who has spoken exclusively with Express.co.uk about his time working on the famous programme with The King himself.

The sprightly 90-year-old told us from his LA home how he was the only one there from the beginning to the end and just wanted to tell the truth of what really happened, including how Elvis came out of his shell and overcame the sabotage attempts of his Machiavellian manager Colonel Tom Parker.

Binder, who greatly admired Elvis after working with him said the star gave 100 per cent to the project: “From the minute I met him he proved himself. It was the first time Elvis actually got out of the womb of the Elvis Presley estate and took a shot.”

The Colonel had wanted around 20 Christmas songs in the special but Elvis had other plans to rediscover his roots and remind the world that he really was the King of Rock and Roll. 

His manager had told Binder that when he first witnessed the star performing live, he wasn’t looking at him but at the girls who were going nuts, knowing he could make some money out of whatever was turning them on so much.

The director said: “The Colonel was a master at manipulating people. He had nothing to offer to me. He felt everybody had a price on their head. When I first started the project he offered me Elvis’ next movie.” However, this would never come to pass after what he and The King got away with on the ’68 Comeback Special.

The Colonel would occasionally attempt to interfere, with Binder recalling being called off stage with Elvis to go to the Colonel’s office. The director remembered from the NBC Hollywood set: “The Colonel was offered the Dean Martin dressing room, turned it down and instead cleared out a little broom closet next to the stage, with a little tiny desk and chair. And he had two William Morris Agency trainee agents and he had them dressed as English palace guards standing in front of this little door of this broom closet during the entire time he was there. 

“We were called into his little office and he said, looking at me, ‘It’s been called to my attention that we don’t have any Christmas songs in the show you’re doing. Why don’t we have any? Elvis wants one in it.’ And Elvis at the time, which I understand was fairly typical when facing The Colonel, had his face bowed and hands crossed. He sort of muttered to The Colonel, ‘Yes’, that he wanted a Christmas song in the show. 

“I said, ‘Elvis, all you had to do was ask me and we’d put one in, but you’ve never approached me about having a Christmas song in the show.’ Colonel said, ‘So it’s clear there will now be a Christmas song in the show?’ And we all nodded in agreement. And he said, ‘Okay boys, you can all go back to work.’ We went out the door, we passed the palace guards and Elvis jammed me in the ribs and said, ‘F*** him.’”

Nevertheless, the Colonel had other plans to obstruct The King’s creative freedom. Binder had wanted to bring cameras into the dressing room to capture Elvis jamming but The Colonel wouldn’t allow it. The director told us: “The Colonel tried to sabotage the improv acoustic session. He did everything in his power to destroy it and not make it work.”

In the end, out of frustration, The Colonel said that the director could maybe recreate the dressing room scenes on stage but wouldn’t guarantee that the segment would be used in the show. Seizing the opportunity, Binder organised it instantly and gave the audience tickets to Colonel to invite girls. Yet this didn’t happen so the production team had to scout for locals off the street. In the end, of course, it was a triumph, but one that came at a great personal cost to the filmmaker.

He shared: “I was obviously incredibly disappointed at the end when I realised that The Colonel had reeled him back in after my experience with him. Made me persona non grata in the Elvis world. I never got to talk with or communicate with Elvis ever again after the last day we said goodbye on the ’68 Special.”

Nevertheless, he’s proud of what he accomplished with The King, adding: “The whole purpose of the documentary is that Elvis rediscovered himself. He realised it wasn’t RCA’s publicity machine and it wasn’t The Colonel’s genius at management. He had the talent and he really proved it once and for all once everyone was able to see him in action and without restriction. He was like a caged animal freed out to go wherever he wanted to.”

Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback is streaming exclusively on Paramount+ from August 15, 2023.

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