On September 21, 1956, Elvis Presley made a triumphant return to his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, following his recent, rapid rise from poverty and obscurity to prosperity and celebrity. At the beginning of this documentary, produced by Michael Rose and narrated by Kris Kristofferson, author Elaine Dundy asserts the importance of place in the formation of legendary personalities by stating, “You can hear the soil in Elvis as you can hear the cement in Frank Sinatra.”
And, of course, it’s obvious from the details presented in Elvis: Return to Tupelo that the Presleys’ experiences in the rural, Depression-scarred community—just a couple hours south of Memphis, Tennessee, but it may as well have been a million miles from the big city life he would come to know—shaped the boy who would be the King more, perhaps, than anything else that happened later in his life. From Elvis surviving birth while his twin was stillborn, which led Gladys Presley to believe her boy was blessed and marked for greatness, to the family’s seemingly endless financial hardships and social ostracization; from Elvis’ early exposure to music and singing through the Tupelo Assembly of God to his exposure to R&B while living on the edges of the black neighborhoods and his competitions in fairs, talent shows, and performances on WELO Tupelo; from his father’s incarceration for fraud in 1938, which strengthened his already devoted relationship with his mother to the Presleys’ eventually move to Memphis when Elvis was 13, Tupelo’s influence is undeniable.
Rose weaves Elvis’ story with that of the town through Depression-era footage, classic and never-before-seen photos, snippets of early audio recordings, and interviews with friends, former flames, Elvis historians, and Tupelo townsfolk. The most critical content of the 90-minute feature documentary—originally aired September 11, 2008 on the Biography Channel—follows Elvis’ breakthrough year of 1956. The success of his sides for Sun Records, the tours of the south gathering screaming fans and fanatical detractors alike, the fateful meeting with Colonel Tom Parker, the subsequent signing to RCA Victor, his first, phenomenal television appearances, and the hero’s welcome he was given at the homecoming concert are covered with great attention to detail and fabulous footage, but the film never falls into the slavish fervor that sometimes surrounds Elvis’ legacy.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of extras to thrill even the most ardent fan. Nearly 60 minutes of special features fill the DVD, including in-depth segments on Elvis Week celebrations and the early Sun Records’ roster. There are extended interviews with girlfriends June Juanico, Dixie Locke Emmons, and Magdalene Morgan, as well as with drummer DJ Fontana. Five original newsreels—Elvis Enters the Army, Elvis Leaves the Army, Elvis Gets Married, Tupelo Tornado, and “Washington Merry-Go-Round” Elvis Controversy—are a welcome treat and a fitting complement to the main feature.
With this documentary, Michael Rose has done a magnificent job in providing a glimpse of Elvis’ childhood and shining a light on the city and situations that shaped a legend. Elvis: Return to Tupelo may very well be the best film about Elvis Presley yet made.