Review : Elvis: The Birth of Rock N' Roll DVD

By: Carl Davis
Source: DVD Talk
June 13, 2004

The Birth Of Rock 'N' RolL
The Birth Of Rock 'N' RolL
With Elvis: The Birth of Rock N' Roll we clearly have what I would refer to as a repackage, meaning that the distributor, Kultur, has taken an aging documentary on Elvis Presley originally titled Elvis: The Beginning (1992) and dressed it up into something it's not. Nowhere on the DVD packaging, or even on the insert is it mentioned that this documentary is from nearly 12 years ago, nor does it mention what medium it was produced for. While repackaging may be a perfectly acceptable business practice it just seems that Kultur was deceptive in their presentation, especially as Elvis fans are usually voracious in their appetites for anything and everything Elvis.

Elvis: The Birth of Rock N' Roll is hosted by that stalwart icon of the Television Biography, Jack Perkins, so perfectly spoofed on both Saturday Night Live and The Mystery Science Theater Hour. Anyone who's ever seen the man can attest to his pitch perfect delivery and utter sincerity in absolutely everything he says. Right away we know that we're in for it, as Jack describes the basis for the documentary, following Elvis on his first tour ('54-'55) between Alberquerque, Cleveland, Atlanta, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Houston and back to Alberquerque. A tour comprising 220 one-night-stands over 4,500 miles with Scotty Moore on lead guitar, Bill Black on bass and a 19-year-old Elvis Presley on vocals and rhythm guitar.

A brief snippet of Elvis is played from one of his many appearances on the radio program, "Louisiana Hayride", broadcast from Shreveport, LA. This clip is from October, 1954, so this is the 50th Anniversary of this moment and can maybe give some rationale for the release of this docu onto DVD. Scotty Moore, Elvis' first manager, as well as his band mate, breaks 30 years of silence by recalling the events of that year. Sadly, what he has to say, while not outright contradictory, doesn't do too much to support the legacy of the King of Rock N' Roll. Moore describes those early days recording for Sam Phillips in the Sun Studios. How the "Elvis" sound really just happened by accident. That's All Right, Mama was just a case of some young guy's horsing around and the moment being captured on tape. Phillips heard it and liked it enough that he had them record it and in only 2-3 takes, they had a finished single.

There are some additional audio clips of Elvis performing, in each instance the docu plays footage of Elvis Impersonator Kevin Mills to replicate what we might have seen during that time. No offense to Mr. Mills, but still photos of Elvis performing would have been better than his "re-enactment" style performances, but the docu does try to use this footage to illustrate and highlight certain things about Elvis. One thing in particular is his unique, for the time, style of dancing. His "shakling" as Scotty Moore recalls was almost an unconscious act on Elvis' part, but when he realized that that was what the young ladies in the audience had been responding to during their set, he always managed to recreate it. He would study the audience and if they reacted favorably to something he did, he would always remember to use it again.

Another myth that this documentary manages to disspell is Elvis' reception by the Gand Ol' Opry. Rather than the cold and almost hostile reaction that people always seem to talk about, Scotty Moore remembers the Opry crowd as being very well mannered and polite. They applauded at all the right moments, even if they weren't really sure what they were applauding for. Elvis' style, fusing Country, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues eventually became known as Rockabilly, but at the time the Nashville audience felt that that wasn't true Country, even if it fell closest to that genre. Elvis' adaptation of several African-American artists' songs was able to bring them and their music to a wider audience than they had ever known before. Little Richard is even quoted as saying that "He (Elvis) opened the door for Black Music."

Towards the end of Elvis: The Birth of Rock N' Roll's 80 minute running time they unearth some interesting footnotes of Elvis' early career. Among them is the appearance of the first Elvis impersonator, Carl "Cheesy" Nelson. While not an impersonator in dress or mannerism, "Cheesy" was impressive enough that the King had him perform a song with his band, and then when Elvis rejoined the trio, he was booed from the stage- considering the audience was made up primarily of "Cheesy" Nelson's friends and family. Another interesting interview comes from one of Elvis' early girlfriends during that year, Shirley McDade, who was only a 17-year-old HS Senior at the time. They met on Valentine's Day, 1955 at the record store that Shirley worked at. They saw each other several times during that year, but lost touch soon after that.

While not a terrible documentary, Elvis: The Birth of Rock N' Roll falls short in several areas. The production values are all quite low and as a result the interviews are all bright washed-out video footage, the re-enactment footage is all shot with a color and grain filter applied and the limited audio clips they got the rights for are recycled ad nauseam. However, the message that comes through loud and clear is that Elvis, before becoming the world's biggest music star, was just a 19-year old kid with a dream and some talent. The best quote from the whole thing came from a girl, who upon seeing Elvis for the first time, described him as "a great big beautiful hunk of Forbidden Fruit."

The DVD:

Picture: The documentary is presented in a 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio. The documentary was shot on video with varying picture quality at times.

Audio: This DVD features a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, which sounds fine.

Extras: There are no Extras included on this DVD.

Conclusion: Being an Elvis fan and having sat through this DVD, twice, I can honestly say that it's not worth buying. Now, it may make for an interesting rental to those Elvis fans that just need to see it, but chances are you've heard most of this stuff before and in a better presentation. This documentary barely registers above mediocre, especially in this day and age when the genre is having a renaissance both on TV and the Big Screen. For Die-hards only, everyone else feel free to skip this one.

Buy Elvis: The Birth of Rock N' Roll DVD

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