Elvis Presley: Ultimate Gospel

Seth Limmer

Elvis Presley

Ultimate Gospel

Label: BMG
US Release Date: 2004-03-23
UK Release Date: 2004-03-22

Elvis Presley shook, rattled and rolled his way into our world by rocking his hips in uncontrolled abandon to the music that seemed to possess his soul. His sheer energy that bordered on ecstasy, that lightning in a bottle that crowned him King of rock and roll, was so obvious even in Presley's first real recording, "That's All Right", the one that famed Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played 11 times in a row the first time it aired on radio. That same fervor of excitement, evident in every photo of his live performances from the Dorsey Show to Rosswood Park, shot Presley's records straight to the top, got his hips banned from national television, and made Elvis a household name, if not idol.

Everyone and everyone's mother seems to have written about the incredible mixture of influences that poured into one young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi and were forged into the greatest icon of popular music and culture of his century. [Okay, everybody's mother but my own.] Blues, rhythm and blues, country, country and western, jump, swing, church hymns, and gospel were all part of the alchemy that turned Elvis into pure gold 100 times over. This is certainly not the place to rehearse such well-documented history; after all, it took Peter Guralnick two whole books and a myriad of column inches.

Still, we know for sure that, at least in his early years, Elvis went to church. The First Assembly of God in Tupelo, to be more precise, where Presley was -- according to his mother -- not only a member of the choir, but often a soloist. Church music seemed so ingrained in Elvis's soul that he was known to boast, "I know every gospel song ever written." Despite the doubtful veracity of that statement, the King did attempt to put on wax his feelings about the Kingdom: in 1957, at the height of his meteoric rise, RCA released a four-song EP of gospel songs, Peace in the Valley. Upon his return from a European stint in the Uncle Sam's Army, Presley recorded a tribute to his favorite church quartets, 1960's His Hand in Mine, backed by the inimitable Jordanaires. Elvis would return to the religious well twice more in his career, releasing How Great Thou Art in 1966 and He Touched Me in 1972. Of course, the title track of the '66 album remained one of Presley's show-stopping numbers in Las Vegas until the time of his death.

It might come as welcome tidings to fans of Presley's gospel records that the best tracks from those four albums have been compiled together for the first time on the new release Ultimate Gospel. But the truth is, there's little good news here. While the lyrical content and song titles might indicate that Ultimate Gospel is a religious album, it is surprisingly devoid of fervor of any variety. Missing is the ecstasy that Elvis was able to bring even to such laughable songs as "Crawfish"; the music is staid, prim, and proper stuff, unhaunted by the manic tension of the best gospel music, and the best Elvis Presley recordings. The agony of "Harbor Lights", the ecstasy of "Blue Moon of Kentucky"; the terror of "In the Ghetto", and the release of "I've Never Been to Spain" are all emotions absolutely lacking here, in what should be the most soulful of Elvis's recordings.

"Where Could I Go But to the Lord", one of the best tracks on Ultimate Gospel, still sounds much closer to a lackluster doo-wop tune than to a moving testimony to the presence of salvation. "Swing Down Sweet Chariot" and "Joshua Fit the Battle" are so hollow that it almost seems as if the King is down on his knees, crooning "Mammy". Hell, it seems as if Elvis put more feeling into "Well, it's one for the money / Two for the show" than he invested in "When I think of how He came so far from Glory / Came to dwell among the lowly such as I" on "Who Am I?", perhaps the most emotional studio performance Presley ever put into a religious song.

The real shortcomings of this album are seen in comparison to other gospel recordings, both Elvis's and others. Two of Ultimate Gospel's 24 tracks are, in one example, found on the Blind Boys of Alabama's masterful Spirit of the Century. Their versions of both "Amazing Grace" and "Run On" are so filled with passion, horror, longing, and an ever-present sense of the possibility of redemption that they make Presley's takes on these themes to border the one-dimensional. Furthermore, the well known live versions of songs such as "Lord, You Gave Me A Mountain" and "The American Trilogy", which features an incredibly moving "Glory, Glory Hallelujah", are far more potent than any of the songs in Ultimate Gospel's brew.

Ultimately, there is only water and not intoxicating wine in the bottle labeled Ultimate Gospel. While it might be the best collection of studio recordings that are pleasant enough to listen to on a Sunday morning, they lack a vivacity that would make Elvis seem truly present, much less a King of Kings. There is better Elvis music out there, and there is far better gospel music to boot. That doesn't mean that this record won't make a tidy fit into your Elvis collection; I'm happy to have it around (even if I didn't pay for it). So take that as cautionary advice from a guy who still believes that the most religious recording one young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi ever made remains the ridiculously soulful "Wearin' That Loved-On Look".

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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