It's ironic that Steve Binder, the maverick television director responsible for "Elvis: One Night With You" (now in rotation on HBO), should also be the man responsible for "Elvis Presley's Graceland, Hosted by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley" (Showtime, 9 p.m.).
Since Graceland is one of the major monuments of American pop culture nowadays, it bears a certain amount of scrutiny, especially on this 50th anniversary of Elvis' birth.
Purchased in 1957 for $100,000 cash, Graceland was the first major splurge by the suddenly rich Elvis. "Can you imagine the sense of gratification that he felt?" asks Priscilla. "You might say it gave him instant respectability."
You might, even if it didn't. Elvis would, in fact, live most of his adult life in this reproduction of an Old South antebellum mansion on 14 gorgeous acres just outside of Memphis. But what Elvis would invest his home with was the detritus of his own bad taste, and a 20-year accumulation of honors that were ultimately empty.
The main problem with "Graceland" is that there's just not enough Graceland. It's almost as if the Presley estate feared devaluing its attractiveness to tourists, who are expected to spend more than $10 million there this year. There's no denying the fascination with what's inside the house: cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs has brilliantly captured the garish colors (mostly blue, red and gold) that delineate this monument to conspicuous consumption. But one longs for a little lingering. What you get is a few cars (including Mom's pink Cadillac and the pink jeep from "Blue Hawaii"), Lisa Marie (the quarter-million-dollar jet used to pick up peanut butter sandwiches in Denver) and what is essentially an indexing of the contents of Graceland (the bedroom complex where Elvis died is off limits on film, as it is in life).
Priscilla Presley, who never hesitates to let us know how close she was to Elvis, is saddled with an all-too-reverential script that sounds like the Gospel according to Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' manager: "He left this world on the 16th of August, 1977," it begins, and for one hour, discouraging words are heard about as often as they are on the range. Presley suggests that what she's offering is a "private tour," that she's going to provide the viewer with some inside stories. Like "in the years he owned it, he made many improvements" or "his favorite television shows were 'I Love Lucy,' 'Carol Burnett' and 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' " Priscilla also tries to act natural, but since her training ground is "Dallas," don't expect much.
There are interviews with Marian Keisker and Sam Phillips, Janelle McComb and other members of the extended family/entourage that surrounded Elvis for most of his life. The problem is that as they anecdotize, the camera stays on their faces. What we really want to see is more of the Naugahyde in the den, the pool room with 750 yards of fabric, the jungle room ("he selected all the furniture in half an hour"), the trophies earned and given, details of the intimate, private Elvis. But this is a tour of rooms, not furnishings, and it offers few insights into either the life or the career of the man who was both king and prisoner inside Graceland's walls.
Even less revealing is "Elvis Memories" (Channel 5 at 8 p.m.). This one was put together by DJ George Klein, who never hesitates to let us know he was Elvis' best man and one of his oldest and closest friends. Klein seems to have rounded up anyone who ever knew Elvis (including his dentist, cook, karate instructor, a Playboy Playmate and David Frost), or any celebrity who had heard of him (the opening credits sound like an awards show guest list). Which is okay, but kind of cheap.
What's cheaper is vintage film and vintage recordings that are obviously not connected being passed of as if they were. The effect is like bad lip-syncing. There's also some never-before-seen film footage, though you'll realize mighty quickly why it's never been seen. "Elvis Memories" is familiar and cheap, and even though it's made by some Elvis intimates, it plays more like the huckster products you find right across the street from Graceland.
"Rock 'n Roll Disciples" (WETA Channel 26 at 11:30) is absolutely weird. The operative word here is fanaticism. The 30-minute show examines, very superficially, four hopelessly devoted true believers, the outer fringe that deified Elvis Presley in life and went over the edge following his death. The least troublesome is Artie Mintz, a mediocre singer who happens to look like the latter-day Elvis and who has built a stumbling career as an impersonator. His passion and that of his wife (she describes her first sighting of Artie, buying a can of hair spray: "It was kind of . . . mystic") are at least bounded by reasonable passion, and so what if their kid has to grow up with the name Aaron Elvis Mintz?
But what are we to make of Frankie "Buttons" Horrocks, who divorced her newlywed husband in 1963 right after seeing "Blue Hawaii" and falling in love with Elvis; a woman whose murdered daughter was buried with Elvis' record of "Burning Love" in her hands and his music playing in church; who abandoned her second family to move to Memphis after The Death? Or of Judy and Jenny Carroll, identical twins who are convinced Elvis is their father ("our mom never said no"), who will name their firstborn Elvis Presley III "as soon as we get our names changed"? In the meantime, they've gotten a dog (he's Elvis Jr.) and are pushing for Elvis to become the first Protestant saint.
"Disciples" also gives us quick shots of the crowd at the funeral and visiting the gravesite; of a White House demonstration for Elvis Presley Day; of a Presley auction. These fans are by no means typical in their exaltation or in their succumbing to the cult of personality surrounding Elvis, but what you're drawn to is the incredible sadness and one-dimensionality of their passion.