Gary Wells (www.soulrideblog.com) joined us towards the end of 2021 to preview our three-part series on the pioneering 1973 satellite live concert, Elvis Aloha From Hawaii. There’s a lot explore; the lead-up, preparations and rehearsals, important people behind the scenes, the intense pressure on everyone involved, a near catastrophe as technical faults threatened to derail the broadcast at the last minute…and finally an entertainment event that would present to an international audience Elvis at the top of his game, dominate television ratings around the world, afford him a number one album, and create the definitive image of his later career.
In this episode we also expand on a couple of outstanding points from our previous discussion about the 1970 concert documentary Elvis That’s The Way It Is, and talk a little about the 1973 George Lucas blockbuster, American Graffiti, and the sequel, More American Graffiti.
Given the time of year the episode was first published, Gary also shares with us some Christmas media traditions and recommendations.
Continuing our analysis of Elvis That’s The Way It Is, we consider the director, Denis Sanders, and the motivation behind some of his editorial choices, a number of which annoyed Colonel Parker and some were cut prior to the movie’s release. In his definitive biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, author Peter Guralnick asserts that Sanders had an ‘implicit contempt for his subject’. Was this a fair observation? This is the complete passage we refer to in the podcast as we consider this point, both at the beginning of this episode and in the post-credits segment at the end. James T (Jim) Aubrey, referenced below, was the feared corporate head of MGM, known, not always affectionately, as ‘the Smiling Cobra’.
“…But the three-page memo that he fired off to Jim Aubrey on September 24 summed up in a nutshell what was wrong with the film. Somehow the excitement that everyone took away from a live performance was missing from the screen, and the Colonel zeroed in on the elements that he perceived to contribute to this misimpression: the anticlimax of a director’s ending tacked on to follow the climax of Elvis’ stage show; the frequent cut-ins on Elvis’ performance, “with great disadvantage to getting across seeing Elvis as he really is performing on stage”; the detracting references to the success of other big Vegas stars (“Every artist has a right to be big in his own way and there should be no comparison by voice or writing to help sell a picture. We must all stand on our own feet”); the put-downs of Elvis’ movies (“I believe… the slurs on Blue Hawaii and G.I. Blues should be completely removed, as these were two of the most successful films ever made by Elvis… and they do not deserve to be mentioned as just trash in such a way”); the overuse of interview footage with the fans (all interview footage, the Colonel advised, ought to be “thoroughly checked [so that] it doesn’t become monotonous and take away from the performance”); and the smarmy dismissal of Las Vegas itself for the kind of conspicuous consumption that could only alienate Elvis’ true fans (“There is no reason to show an abundance of steaks in a truck in this picture when perhaps in Dalton, Georgia, where the picture may be showing, a family saved up money to see the picture and relinquished their hamburger for that night so that they could see Elvis. It has no meaning to the value of the promotion of the picture and it is much better to keep the picture down to earth as much as possible”).
Most of all, without ever actually naming it, what he really seems to be objecting to is the director’s implicit contempt for his subject, but he concludes his letter to Aubrey on an exhortatory note nonetheless, declaring that “Mr. Denis Sanders did a tremendous job with great enthusiasm and dedication. We are endeavouring to help put it together on a professional commercial basis…”
(Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick. Little, Brown and Company, 1999. 2020 edition by Abacus)
Moving on to our upcoming episodes on Aloha From Hawaii, we’ll see how Elvis’ career was tracking through the stunningly successful year of 1972, and examine his long relationship with Hawaii through movies and philanthropy.
We’ll run through the lead-up to the special from Colonel Parker’s initial idea of a live concert to be broadcast internationally by satellite, and the first public announcement of the details, from Las Vegas, in September 1972. KNBC were there to cover the press conference and the close of Elvis’ engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton. (Apologies the picture quality is not great but the audio is fine)
As with many of Elvis’ career landmarks, key outside collaborators were brought in to great effect. The most significant of whom in the Aloha story was Marty Pasetta, an experienced television producer and director and, as we’ll find out, someone not backward in robustly asserting his influence in the cause of creative excellence.
RCA executive, producer and Elvis archivist Joan Deary also played a significant role, including at the recording desk for the actual satellite concert and then supervising the engineering of the final album mix. The relationship between Deary and Elvis’ own people, including his personal producer Felton Jarvis, then convalescing after a kidney transplant, was not an easy one, according to biographer Peter Guralnick. We examine a momentous business decision made by Colonel Parker, with Elvis’ approval, in the aftermath of the Aloha project, and the implications for the future, where Joan Deary would have a major, ongoing influence.
We know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Aloha From Hawaii proved to be a colossal artistic and commercial success, but the lead-up to the broadcast and subsequent album release was anything but smooth sailing. Everyone involved was under intense pressure; there were arguments, standoffs, concerns over whether Elvis would rise to the challenge, and some potentially catastrophic last minute technical problems and even possible sabotage. We look at all of this in detail, and finally the dress rehearsal and live show, the edited NBC television special for domestic broadcast, and double live album that would be Elvis’ final Billboard #1 in his lifetime.
As with Elvis That’s The Way It Is, there is a lot more to Aloha From Hawaii than meets the eye, and there is no one better to help us get to the nitty-gritty of it than Gary Wells. We hope you’re looking forward to our deep dive as much as we are.
But now, given the time of year, we share some of our Christmas and holiday viewing and listening traditions, one of which is American Graffiti (George’s New Year tradition), although Gary has this as a Labour Day staple.
According to Gary;
“…(George) Lucas made American Graffiti in 28 days for $775,000. Test audiences loved it; Universal hated it. Producer Coppola was miffed and said he’d buy it back from the studio. But Universal finally released it and it became one of the original sleeper hits. The film initially grossed $55 million – $325 mil in today’s dollars. In 1978, Universal re-released it and it grossed an additional $63 million bringing the total to $118 million or $697 million. It is currently the 43rd-highest grossing film of all-time, adjusted for inflation. American Graffiti has one of the highest cost-to-profit ratios in movie history…”
Gary has written a four-part series on American Graffiti on his own website, which includes lots of background information and a comprehensive location guide with some additional links as well. There is also a separate stand-alone piece reviewing in detail Wolfman Jack’s autobiography, and a separate piece on More American Graffiti.
Find all this great content here.
In 1979, a sequel appeared, More American Graffiti, written and directed by Bill L Norton. It charted the lives of the principal characters from the original, with the exception of Richard Dreyfuss (Curt), in the increasingly chaotic and dark world of post-Kennedy, late 1960s American counterculture and the Vietnam War. Although it was not the colossal success of the original, it was in general release for 126 weeks and grossed 15 million on a budget of three million dollars.
Gary also takes us through some of his own Christmas family traditions, including this 1959 compilation volume by Ed Sullivan. Read Gary’s review here.
Gary also references the 1982 movie, Diner, written and directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Jerry Weintraub (1937-2015). As well as a successful film producer, Weintraub was a philanthropist and a very well-liked and respected talent manager (John Denver) and concert promoter, (Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys). A pioneer of large-arena music events, he also facilitated Elvis’ move out of Las Vegas showrooms and onto the stadium tour circuit, working with Elvis and the Colonel right up to the end, and actually beyond. He also made a handful of movie cameo appearances, including as gangster Sonny Capps in The Firm.
And finally one more suggestion for a New Year at home; the Martin Scorsese concert movie, The Last Waltz (released 1978), featuring The Band and an array of incredible guest artists. One of the highlights of the movie is undoubtedly the performance of The Weight, featuring the Staples Singers.
Thanks to Gary, to Steve Collins, and to Gainesville for our podcast theme. And thanks to you for listening and reading.