The 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth is just weeks away, says Ron Hendren at the beginning of an "Entertainment This Week" tribute to the King on Channel 7 at 5 p.m. Sunday. Four weeks, actually; "ETW," the weekend version of "Entertainment Tonight," is stealing a step on the competition with this hour-long show. Unfortunately, the fast start doesn't keep the program from stumbling through Presley's career with the same lack of focus that plagued so much of that career.
No one is expecting depth from "ET," W or not, and no one is going to get it. This is just the long version of freeze-dried television, a quick see. It's an opportunity to trot out a bewildering array of Presley patriots and currently hot acts like Wham and Boy George of Culture Club for inane commentary on Presley's influence. No one stays on long enough to contribute anything meaningful, and what everyone says is what people have been saying with mind-grinding regularity since Presley's death in 1977.
There's a simple formula here: when it's Elvis, it's fine; when it's "ET," it's not. The early years are quickly covered by zooming in on the same photographs found in any major Presley book. The pictures spring to life only when Elvis takes to an outdoor Louisiana stage in 1956, or on the various television shows that cemented his position that year. In these clips, he is leonine in his looks and snake-hip in his motion, a totally prepossessing rock 'n' roll animal. It's hard to take your eyes off the young, unfettered Presley, but it doesn't take long to realize how brief this moment was.
There are brief segments on the Army, his personal life, his movie career and his television milestones (Ed Sullivan, the 1968 NBC special and the Aloha concert in 1973). But there's too much glibness, too little Elvis, too little truth (one mention of drugs, little more on the weight problem, and what amounts to a tribute to Col. Tom Parker).
The only interesting segment is on the shooting of a "Blue Suede Shoes" video aimed at reaching an MTV generation that might wonder just what Elvis Presley was all about (unfortunately, it doesn't look as if the video's going to tell them). There's also some moving footage from the fan vigils following Presley's death, including a shattering shot of the sea of flowers outside the Presley mausoleum.
"ETW Salutes Elvis" covers hits (crawls listing all his gold records and Grammy awards) as well as myths, but it does so in an annoyingly superficial manner. It raises many questions as a way to avoid answering any of them. "Will the fanatics cheer forever?" Not when tributes like this are being extracted rather than paid.