Still one of the best documentaries ever done about a rock & roll figure, Elvis '56 benefited from an unusually good selection of clips (and not just of Elvis Presley) and a narrow focus -- the first year of Elvis Presley's national career -- that allowed the producers, Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond, to plunge deeply into their subject without fear of overlooking anything important. The mix of newsreel clips, candid photos, home movies (including Presley and Liberace playing guitars together in Vegas), demo and rehearsal tapes, television kinescopes, and audio interviews with Presley is assembled together in a package that could almost have gone out without any supporting narration, but the presence of Levon Helm, a narrator who not only knows and identifies with his subject, but knows the time and place in which these events transpired, only pushes the value of this program over the top.
There is so much good in this documentary that it's almost overpowering: The graceful shifts from career to family concerns; detailed accounts of recording sessions and of his return to see his family in Memphis after cutting "Hound Dog"; private moments with his high school sweetheart; films and recordings of concerts, from Las Vegas, Memphis, Florida, Tupelo, MS, etc.; and the progressively more prestigious and more musically successful and adept television performances are all woven together into a wonderfully intimate, very moving portrait of a man and a musician in the process of rising to (and coping with) stardom. Though it only runs an hour, the film is chock-full of memorable images, from the eeriness of Presley's appearances with the Dorsey Brothers on their television show -- how more out of place could two sets of artists be than Elvis and his band and the Dorseys and their orchestra? -- to the awkwardness of his Steve Allen Show performance of "Hound Dog" (sung to a real hound dog in a little top hat, to match Elvis' tuxedo and tails) and shots of the ballooning audiences for his performances. Some of the shots have acquired strange, eerie resonances, such as the photograph of Elvis at Grand Central Station on his way out of New York to a gig in the south, capturing just about the last time that Presley could show up in so public a place in a major city without a phalanx of police or, at least, an entourage to run interference and deflect the crowds that would gather. The early-2000 re-release is well mastered and has rich, robust sound that reproduces at a healthy volume and has a good dimensionality to it. The DVD breaks the movie up into 17 chapters that designate all of the major transitions -- those strengths, however, are partly muted by the fact that the DVD doesn't have a time-code read-out (and, by extension, no chapter-number read-out); as a result, one knows where every major section of the program is in relation to everything else, but one has to keep track of the time oneself, which is sort of silly. Still, the movie is so compelling, and the content so absolutely essential for any fan of Elvis Presley, that it's impossible not to recommend it, as long as one doesn't expect anything too sophisticated in the execution.