A favorite show of mine growing up, and one that I have always wished would come out on DVD, is the short-lived 1990 ABC series Elvis-Good Rockin' Tonight. It only lasted for 10 episodes with three unaired episodes, and was later edited into one long, (4 hours) film' Elvis: The Early Years'. It follows a young Elvis from his days in Tupelo to the end of his days at Sun Records. The series starred Michael St Gerard, Jesse Dabson, Blake Gibbons, and Millie Perkins. I'm posting this here because I always hear people say 'well, they've made 'Walk The Line', and 'Ray' why has there never been a production on par with those two for Elvis? Well, there has! I've just received a bootleg of the series and I'd like to review all 13 episodes.
First, a little background: The series was pitched in 1988 by Rick Husky to Pricilla Presley. Originally considered for the role of Elvis was Matt Dillon and Scott Valentine of 'Family Ties'. Then Michael St. Gerard, fresh off of 'Hairspray' and 'Great Balls Of Fire' (in which he played Elvis), came in. lip-synced to Baby Let's Play House, got the part, and flew to Memphis the next day to start filming. Michael St Gerard made a career of playing Elvis ::: 'Great Balls of Fire', 'Quantum Leap', 'Heart Of Dixie' - he looks so much like him it gives you that 'fly on a wall' view on Elvis' life, much like Jamie Fox did as Ray Charles. Instead of using Elvis' masters for the soundtrack they used famed sound-alike Ronnie McDowell. This is one of my favorite parts of the series as you hear a few songs Elvis never actually recorded but might of played live. Songs like Ray Charles' Mess Around, and Ivory Joe Hunter's Since I Met You Baby give you the impression of a young Elvis putting together a live act in the early days considering he only had one or two records out. One last this before I get into the episodes, an interesting casting choice was made for Elvis' mother Gladys, Millie Perkins who was the real Elvis' love interest in the 1961 film 'Wild In The Country'.
1) Money Honey: In the first episode Elvis records his first demo 'My Happiness'. His father hurts his back and forces Elvis to support the family, a year has past and Sam Phillips calls to have Elvis come back into Sun Records, and work with some musicians Scotty Moore & Bill Black. This is a good place to open the series, we get a small intro in which we see Elvis as a child watching his father get arrested for altering a paycheck. It gives you a sense of the extreme poverty that was much of Elvis' early life.
2) The Storm: This episode opens with another flashback of young Elvis, this time witnessing the tornado that devastated Tupelo in the late 30's. we then clip to Elvis trying out a few songs at Sun Records which leads to the recording of his first record 'That's All Right Mama'. By the end of the episode the record gets played on the air and Elvis' life is about to change. I like the symbolism in this episode starting with the tornado, and ending with Elvis saying to his mother after the record is a success, 'There's a storm coming, Mama'. Very simple, but perfect.
3) The Locket: Again we begin with a flashback. While this does happen quite a bit, every episode is related in way to show an event in Elvis' childhood having an effect on him in later years. Here we see Gladys and child Elvis visiting Vernon in prison, and we see that Gladys is there for a conjugal visit. It means the episode will be based around sex. Here we have Elvis performing his very first show. He opens with a ballad, and then tears into 'Good Rockin' Tonight' shaking his hips, driving the crowd wild. His girlfriend fearing all the attention gives him a locket. Elvis then goes on the road where he sleeps with a groupie. This episode is great for the music, the rerecording of Elvis' hits sound great here, and the song 'Since I Met You Baby' sounds great arranged as an early Sun-era Elvis ballad.
4) Bel-Air Breakdown: The first episode without a flashback, and an interesting take on Elvis' early fame. The episode revolves around the troubles three guys have touring the country as the first rock & roll group. What I love about this show is that what is usually considered minor characters in an Elvis biopic, are here considered major characters. I'm talking here of course about Scotty Moore & Bill Black Elvis' sidemen.
5) Hole In The Pocket: We open, again, with a flashback of Elvis at ten years old taking third place in a singing contest at a state fair. We then clip to the main story. This one revolves around Elvis getting his first royalty check and spending it on the, now famous, pink Cadillac. One highlight of this show is when they introduce the caddy they clip back and forth between shots of Elvis driving it to a very cool vintage Cadillac commercial which perfectly shows the excitement that was a 1950's Caddy!
6) Roots: The first of my three favorite episodes. When asked what era of Elvis do you like, people say the 50's, 60's or 70's. For me, it's his formative years, and that's what this one is about. There's something poetic about the image of a young Elvis learning about the blues. Here Elvis & the boys get a show in Tupelo. Elvis meets up with old friends and sits in a all-black blues club after his show at the local white high school. Now this may not have happened, but it doesn't matter it successfully portrays the negative reaction to Elvis' music and the ugliness of segregation.
7) & 8) Grand Ole Opry/Sun Sessions: My second favorite episode. Here we get an idea of Elvis' country influence as we see a young Elvis listening to the Grand Ole Opry while strumming his guitar. In the main story Elvis & the boys get the offer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry where after their heads swell a bit, they go over like a lead balloon. They go back to Memphis with their tails tucked between their legs and struggle to record their next record. The second half of the episode is very cool as you get to see Elvis trying out different songs, that Elvis really did try out on Sun but the real tapes have been lost. They get it together by the end, and on we go.
9) Four Mules: This is one of three unaired episodes. Its focus is on Elvis & the boys booking the Louisana Hayride, a major radio show that gave Elvis his start, the subplot revolves around all of the characters being as stubborn as mules. The fourth mule being Sam Phillips. Not much to say here, I have the real audio of Elvis at the Louisana Hayride so it's cool to see it re-created here. Also, very cool to see David Graff, Tackleberry from Police Academy, as Elvis' second manager Bob Neal.
10) The Old Man: This is the second of three unaired episodes. This is a 'Scotty Moore episode' not much of Elvis here but still very interesting to see. Here Scotty struggles as Elvis' manager and guitar player, by the end of the episode Bob Neal becomes their manager so Scotty can focus on the music. It's an interesting episode in it shows how fast Elvis was becoming a star.
11) Moody's Blues: My favorite episode. The whole episode is a flashback. Here we see Elvis in high school learning the blues from a Beale St. street musician. My favorite part is both the music in the episode and the line, 'that's your problem boy, the blues is complaining!'
12) Bodyguards: This episode is kind of sad in a way. It shows why Elvis needed all those bodyguards he had in his later years. We see the fans going crazy, jealous boyfriends. There's no upside to this episode, you see Elvis as a man who longed for freedom but could never have it. There's a lot of what he became here.
13) Let It Burn: The last episode. I feel like this episode was a foreshadowing episode too. Elvis is on the road, he cheats on his girlfriend, and she catches him. By the end of the episode, Elvis hires his own bodyguards, and Scotty & Bill become nothing more than sidemen. The upside here is the music. It's really cool to hear what it would have been like if Elvis had covered Mess Around by Ray Charles. The arrangement is so cool in fact I learned how to play it. The end of the episode has
Elvis driving his Caddy on bad wheel bearings and it catches fire. Elvis says 'let, it burn'. As in leave the past behind. I only wish the series went into his early RCA period, but also it seems people were flipping over to Fox for their brand new hit show The Simpsons which held the same time slot as Elvis.
In conclusion, this show is fantastic! The locations a beautiful, the costumes, and period cars take you to the early '50s in Memphis, and unlike the awful 2005 Jonathan Rhys Myers mini-series Elvis, Michael St Gerard lip syncs very well and has Elvis' moves down cold.
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