The Sunrise Musical Theatre swells as the sixteen-piece orchestra plays the opening strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the theme song musical director Joe Guercio lifted long ago from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nestled amid the horn and string sections, the giant screen reveals a white-jump-suited Elvis, in a clip from Aloha from Hawaii, walking out on to a large stage, hitting his mark, and attacking the first bars of the Chuck Willis classic, "C.C. Rider." Elvis sounds as good and moves as well as he did 30 years ago, which is to say the man -- even as a hologram -- is electrifying. The vocal track is deep, soulful, and formidable. The man on the screen is completely lost inside the music.
The back-up singers and core musicians on the Sunrise stage do their thing, just like they did all those years ago. Guitarist Burton, clad in a sequined vest at center stage, gets his licks in. The Sweet Inspirations, all dressed in black, take off with a piercing falsetto. Marked by brass-fueled crescendos, the call-and-response exchanges between the projected Elvis and his embodied vocalists are at once soulful and bombastic.
"With the screen, he's there," Guercio observes in an interview before the show, without the slightest trace of cynicism, "and we give him the same effort we always gave him." He is unabashed in his defense of the concept of video resurrection, claiming to have pioneered the production of music from beyond the grave in the late Seventies, when he was performing with Natalie Cole and worked her late father's recordings into the stage show. "She never gave me credit for coming up with that idea," says Guercio, less upset over the perceived slight than simply eager to set the record straight.
For the conductor the live show with a dead star is more than an exercise in nostalgia or technical witchcraft. "Elvis had such phenomenal respect for the people on the stage with him," remembers Guercio, trying to explain why all the original band members accepted this gig. "Most headliners just pay you. Well, he did that, but he'd also do things like give you a little look of approval during the shows. That was a real turn-on."
Skepticism would be easy. Guercio and company undoubtedly are pulling down a nice bit of change to play the same arrangements they learned three decades ago, and they don't have to take any shit from some temperamental star. But that conclusion doesn't account for the energy of the production, or for the fact that no one onstage seems to be mailing it in. Although most people in the audience keep their eyes glued to the giant screen (Why, when they've seen it all before?) the musicians, Sweets, and Imperials never cheat. The Sweets, who could easily chill on their chairs until they hear their cue, instead keep time with the band, grooving right along with the music.
Watching them and the rest of the group, it is hard to deny that there must have been something special about Elvis Presley, about that music. Maybe it was the size, the inclusiveness, of those Seventies shows. Not just the number of people involved -- and the fact that the cast ranged from white Southern boys on drum and guitar to black gospel singers -- but the range of music they performed.
Elvis Presley's musical borders were boundless. He was an avid listener of almost every genre of American roots music -- black gospel, white gospel, R&B, soul, and country -- and was a sucker for lite opera and Vegas schmaltz. Who else but Elvis would ever profess to love singers as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Mario Lanza, Jackie Wilson, Dean Martin, and Hank Williams?
The Seventies concerts featured, alongside obligatory run-throughs of Elvis's earlier hits, over-the-top versions of songs such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water," and the song that became an Elvis signature, "An American Trilogy." This material afforded Elvis the opportunity, musically and thematically, to span the scope of his lived experiences: white holy roller church services, old black men strumming guitars on Memphis's famed Beale Street, pickup trucks and pink Cadillacs, Tupelo and Hollywood, worlds without hope and others without limits.