Before Elvis became ELVIS, he was a 20-year-old Memphis truck driver, who played with a band at weekends, one of many Southern groups havin' themselves a good time, foolin' around with rockabilly - a mixture of R&B and Country - without a care in the world and little ambition beyond cutting a disc or two with Mr Phillips at Sun Records.

And then came The Colonel, who wasn't a colonel, or an American for that matter, and everything changed. Elvis's mom didn't trust The Colonel, but his dad thought he talked sense and when he suggested he take Elvis up to New York where the big television studios were, Elvis's dad gave his consent.

At the age of 21, Elvis brought out the record that would resonate around the world and change the face of pop music forever. It was called Heartbreak Hotel. When he sang it on The Milton Berle Show, movin' the way he did, gyrating his hips an' all, there was a public outcry. "He doesn't just look different," one commentator remarked. "He looks dangerous."

Elvis '56 is a fascinating documentary about an extraordinary phenomenon known as fame. Elvis's roots were in the South and the Big Apple was like another planet, where The Colonel's guiding hand was beneficial to this burgeoning rock star (the thought of being a sex symbol made him laugh), who dyed his hair black because he wanted to be like Tony Curtis.

There is not a huge amount of live footage, except for the TV spots with Berle and Steve Allen and most famously Ed Sullivan, who insisted he be photographed from the waist up to avoid any of those lascivious pelvic thrusts. "I can't stay still," Elvis said, with a grin. "I tried, but I can't."

He is introduced to Liberace - all smiles and playful banter - who gives him good advice about the importance of what you wear and how you look - at that time Elvis's stage gear was appalling. He goes to Hollywood and makes a film - he is so keen to become a dramatic actor like James Dean that he learns everyone's lines as well as his own - from which Love Me Tender becomes a smash hit. He confesses to being lonely and not having time to meet girls, despite thousands screaming whenever and wherever he appears.

It is easy to forget that in one year Elvis moved from being another white kid belting out black music at Sun Studios, Memphis, to attracting 54 million viewers on a national television show. That he did so without forgetting his manners, losing his sense of humour or going crazy is a tribute to his character. He even sang Hound Dog on TV, in white tie and tails, to a real live Droopy, wearing a top hat and dickey bow. "It was the most ridiculous night of my career," he said. The point is he entered into the spirit of it and didn't complain. Later, maybe, he should have taken a tougher line with The Colonel, but that's another story, another film.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2006
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Elvis '56 packshot
The year that turned a 21-year-old Memphis truck driver into The King.
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Director: Alan Raymond, Susan Raymond

Starring: Elvis Presley, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Bill Black, D.J. Fontana, The Jordanaires, narrated by Levon Helm

Year: 2004

Runtime: 61 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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