Hot on the heels of the success of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the third-highest grossing music biopic since the 1970s, Steve Binder, the Emmy-winning director of Elvis Presley’s electrifying ’68 Comeback Special, is producing a documentary about the experience.
Elvis & Steve: The Making of the ’68 Comeback Special will delve into the behind-the-scenes drama that seemed to loom over almost every frame of the NBC program that catapulted Presley back into people’s homes and hearts.
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Binder and his Rodan Productions have begun pre-production on the 2023 documentary that will celebrate the 55th anniversary of the show. “I’m truly the only one who can tell the behind-the-scenes story of how it came to be – because I’m the only one who was actually there for all that happened,” says Binder, 89.
Even in a brief conversation, it’s clear that Binder, who directed the rock n’ roll film The T.A.M.I. Show, as well as Diana Ross Live At Central Park, Olivia Newton John’s 1978 special Olivia and the groundbreaking 1968 special Petula, which controversially featured Petula Clark with Harry Belafonte, has total recall of his time with Presley and his near constant battles with Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker from day one.
“The first meeting was a disaster because the first thing [Parker] said was, ‘We’ve already decided on what the special is going to be. NBC agrees with me and the sponsor agrees with me and we’re going to do a 20-song Christmas special,’” Binder says.
Presley had focused on movies since he’d gotten out of the Army in 1960, and Binder knew the special needed to show Presley’s legendary stage charisma and range instead of turn in a sedate holiday croon-fest like Andy Williams or Perry Como would make.
As he and Parker butted heads, Binder says he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t fired, and didn’t find out until years later that Presley had his back. “I never knew until Priscilla [Presley] told me after Elvis had passed away that after the first meeting that I had with Elvis, he came home and told Priscilla, ‘I don’t care what the Colonel says. I got a gut feeling I’m going with this guy Binder. I just have a feeling that he might be the right guy for me.’”
Presley was right. The special, which featured the star performing in a variety of styles and settings and birthed the acoustic “unplugged” concept, drew a now unimaginable 42% of the viewing audience when it aired on Dec. 3, 1968.
Binder chronicled much of the stories that will be in the documentary in his 2018 coffee table book Elvis ’68 Comeback: The Story Behind the Special. The book was re-issued in 2021 with an introduction by Luhrmann. Binder, who served as a creative consultant on Elvis, is portrayed in Luhrmann’s movie by Australian actor Dacre Montgomery, and the scenes about the special are considered some of the film’s most riveting.
Since its June 24 release, Elvis has grossed more than $136 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to boxofficemojo.com, putting it only behind 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody and 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. It has revived interest in Presley and introduced him to a new generation.
Binder says at this point, Luhrmann is involved in the documentary “only as a friend and a consultant,” but that “he certainly has an offer from me to join in any capacity that he would even consider.”
Binder expects to announce a director and distributor soon, and has enlisted Spencer Proffer, whose acclaimed documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie, is airing on Paramount +, to help produce.
“I’m proud to continue my decades-long professional and personal association with Steve Binder — one of the most innovative creators in entertainment,” Proffer says. “Steve broke molds, thought outside the box, and lived in relentless pursuit of making electrifying, bar-raising magic on the television screen. And now, in revisiting one of his more stunning achievements — the making of the Elvis comeback special — Steve opens the vault to share a buddy story that is revealing, poignant, and an explosive time capsule that offers a new perspective on the inner workings of Elvis, Colonel Parker and a director who took risks and made history in the process.”
The documentary will place in context how vital the ’68 Special was to Presley’s career by, in part, showing the status of his career leading up to the special. “Right now I’m digging for permission to use footage from his movies and so forth that use as an exclamation point what his life was like from the time he went into the Army in Germany to coming make and working in movies,” he says.
When asked if the Presley estate is cooperating with the documentary, Binder says it’s too early to have had that conversation yet. “I haven’t even opened that door right now. The most important thing is what’s going to make this documentary so unique,” he says. “We all know bits and pieces at the very least about Elvis, his career and his life and so forth. But that’s not enough. I’ve really got to get in behind the scenes and tell stories that people will be knocked out with.”