Elvis: Return to Tupelo doesn't exactly cover new ground, but this spry and handsomely crafted documentary offers a concise overview of Elvis Presley's meteoric rise from Mississippi shotgun shack to King of Rock 'n' Roll.
The documentary traces Elvis' origins from Tupelo, Mississippi, to his breakout year of 1956, when the singing sensation with the trademark snarl and gyrating hips made a triumphant return to the town of his birth for a benefit concert. The film contends Presley's dirt-poor upbringing made an indelible impression on his persona. "You could hear the soil in Elvis as you could hear the cement in Frank Sinatra," says one interviewee.
Writer-director Michael Rose hits the high points over a briskly paced 90 minutes. Weaving archival footage and photographs with modern-day interviews of various Elvis scholars, colleagues and friends, Return to Tupelo provides a Wikipedia-friendly summary of the King's formative years. He was born Jan. 8, 1935, the sole surviving baby of twins born to Vernon and Gladys Presley. The family was mired in poverty. Vernon went to prison for a couple of years after getting crossways with his landlord. As a preteen, Elvis enjoyed comic books, fishing, hamburgers, RC Cola and, most of all, a guitar his mama bought for him at a Tupelo hardware store.
In 1948, the Presleys moved to public housing in Memphis, Tennessee. The big city and the pulsating music scene along Beale Street opened up a new world for the boy, who immersed himself in blues, country and gospel.
The picture's final third rifles through Elvis' dizzying ascent, from Sam Phillips' Sun Studios and the Louisiana Hayride tours to the management of Col. Tom Parker and landmark TV appearances on Steve Allen's talk show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Return to Tupelo shoehorns in the requisite information, but it sacrifices a lot of color and texture in the process.
Narrated by Kris Kristofferson, the documentary is breezy and entertaining, but -- and this is a big flaw considering the thriving cottage industry surrounding its well-covered subject -- doesn't offer groundbreaking insight or new information. The interviews tend to be flat. An early girlfriend of Elvis' muses on what a great kisser he was. An Elvis biographer recounts how the singer was devoted to his mama. And so on.
When the doc does veer toward more provocative fare, it stops short of sufficient examination. In a period of American segregation and prevalent racism, Return to Tupelo makes clear, much of Elvis Presley's early success stemmed from his ability to transform the sexiness, energy and panache of African-American music into something palatable for white teenagers. In a fascinating aside, we learn how Memphis radio deejay Dewey Phillips, an integral player in Presley's rising star, subtly let his listeners know that Elvis had attended a white high school. Even so, there was nothing cynical or calculated about how Presley drew upon the music and performance style of black recording artists. Unlike, say, Pat Boone and his milquetoast covers of Little Richard and others, Elvis Presley's appreciation was genuine and powerful.
The King's co-opting of black culture is not particularly revelatory, perhaps, but it begs for greater exploration than is offered here. That doesn't prevent Elvis: Return to Tupelo from being fun viewing. But does the world need another Elvis Presley documentary if it gives us nothing new?
Presented in 1.78:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Elvis: Return to Tupelo has a standard video look: flat, but serviceable. Lines are reasonably strong and flesh tones are adequate. Most of the archival footage used in the film is in decent shape.
The PCM audio track is adequate but unremarkable. Sound is clear and consistent. No subtitles are available.
The mighty impressive bonus material is separated into Newsreels and Features. Unfortunately, there is no function to watch clips consecutively.
Newsreel footage includes Elvis Enters the Army (32 seconds), Elvis Leaves the Army (2:59) and Elvis Gets Married (26 seconds). The two-minute, 43-second Tupelo Tornado is silent footage of a deadly twister that struck the Mississippi town in 1936. Elvis is also the subject of a 12-minute segment from Drew Pearson's Washington Merry-Go-Round.
Features encompass an array of mini-docs complete with voiceover narration (not Kristofferson). Elvis Week/Elvis Festivals (4:25) skims the singer's worldwide popularity. The Alamo Girls (5:27) boasts the recollections of then-teen girls from Alamo, Tennessee, who made the 1956 pilgrimage to see Elvis perform in Tupelo. Sun Records Lineup (1:55) examines Presley's beginnings with Sam Phillips' Sun Records. Elvis Meets Bill Monroe (3:08) looks at how the rock 'n' roll singer revamped the bluegrass waltz of Monroe's composition, "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
In D.J. Fontana: Elvis on TV (3:55), Elvis' drummer recounts how Tonight show host Steve Allen pushed Elvis into self-mockery. Sneaking into the Fair (2:11) features a childhood friend of Elvis' relating how the two tried sneaking into the Mississippi state fair. Memories of the Colonel (1:44) touches on the influence of Col. Tom Parker.
In George Klein Remembers the Coach (2:32), a former classmate remembers how the King of Rock 'n' Roll dealt with an irascible high school football coach. June Juanico: First Date (5:18), Dixie Locke Emmons: First Date (3:39) and Debunking the Myth that Elvis Was a Racist (2:55) are self-explanatory. Mike Freeman Owning Elvis's House (2:36) offers some anecdotes by the man who owns the home Elvis bought in 1956. Magdalene Morgan's Christmas Gift (2:22) is a recollection from one of Elvis' childhood friends.
Elvis: Return to Tupelo is certainly a passable documentary, but it is aimed squarely as casual to very-casual fans. It sheds no new light on an icon who doesn't lack for a wealth of biographical material.