DVD Review:

Elvis: Return To Tupelo

Elvis: Return To Tupelo, Produced, written and directed by Michael Rose, 2008

New DVD lives up to its sub-title: "A documentary special"

Press for Elvis: Return To Tupelo: Teenagers in the 1950s and ‘60s turned Elvis Presley into an icon as his shaking hips and snarling lips sent rock ‘n’ roll shockwaves around the world. His emergence on the scene represented a seismic shift in the culture wars over race, sex and class. The story of Elvis lies at the heart of a struggle that gives birth to a new form of music, rock ‘n’ roll, and an America that is forever changed.

Understanding the Elvis phenomenon, and his impact on the world, requires going back to his origins in rural Tupelo, Mississippi where he grew up as one of the poorest boys in town. What happened here set the stage for him to become the star that still shines brightly today.

Our story traces the Elvis saga from his birth during the depths of the Depression, to his move to Memphis, to his formative high school years, through his early struggles to launch a music career and wraps up with his triumphant homecoming concert in 1956, on the same stage where he’d lost a talent contest eleven years earlier. It’s a little known story that while inextricably linked to an era and a place still resonates today.

What can we say about this new DVD documentary? A lot!! From beginning to end, Elvis: Return To Tupelo is an absolute joy to watch.

The DVD documentary chronicles the early years of Elvis from his birth in Tupelo, Mississippi to his triumphant homecoming concert in 1956. 

Easily the best Elvis documentary of 2008, Elvis: Return To Tupelo offers the viewer riveting insights to the Presley family life, from the 5 hour bus trips to see Vernon in prison on Sundays and the special bond which grew at that time between a mother and son suffering through what must have been a harrowing experience, to the many revealing recollections by Elvis' friends, family, girlfriends and peers.

A fundamental strength of the documentary is the producer's balanced use of archival material and the recollections of Elvis’ friends as he was growing up in his original home town.  Also, the impressive running time of Elvis: Return to Tupelo allows it have much more robust and comprehensive account with many more new insights for the viewer than other documentaries have done.

Underlying such a great documentary is exemplary research, including a major contribution by Elvis historian, Mike Freeman.

In a smart move the producers provide accounts by those who closely knew the boyhood Elvis in Tupelo and even those who were not a fan. 

The archival historical material is invaluable as it heightens the viewer’s sense of major events throughout Elvis’ life in Tupelo. From the great Tupelo storm which devastated the town in 1936 to the self-sufficient nature of Parchman Penitentary (farm), Elvis: Return to Tupelo informs, instructs and invokes our greater understanding of its core subject matter.

In fact the subject matter covered is so rich and varied that it delights by its colorful and eclectic nature.  The story of the boyhood Elvis really comes alive for the viewer as we engage through vignettes, anecdotes, recollections and a visual feast of archival delights.

The story of Elvis’ guitar – would it be a guitar or rifle is not a new one, but in Elvis: Return To Tupelo it is refreshingly told.

On Vernon’s incarceration, we learn of Gladys’ tireless campaign to gain him an early release by garnering the support of prominent citizens and letters from the community.

Some of the people interviewed include Elvis’ 6th grade teacher, Mrs Dewey Camp who relates how Elvis would often sing Old Shep and God Bless My Daddy at school; Shirley Gillentine, a childhood friend of Elvis’ who was the actual winner of the Tupelo Fair Talent Show when a bespectacled Elvis came 5th (he did not place in the top 3 as many sources suggest); another close childhood friend, Bernard Lansky; James Ausborn, who provides a fascinating anecdote about ‘ROC’; Leroy Green, a childhood peer but not a fan of Elvis’, at least in the 1950s; author of the seminal book, ‘Gladys and Elvis’, Elaine Dundy; historian Roy Turner; early girlfriends of Elvis, Dixie Locke and Magdeline Morgan (Elvis first wife!); and Forest L. Bobo who taught Elvis the three chords he needed to know to play the guitar: ‘G’, ‘D’ and ‘C’.

Elvis: Return To Tupelo also powerfully reminds us of two major influences which were instrumental in shaping the image and performance mannerisms of the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Shake Rag and Captain Marvel Jr.  African American, Sam Leroy’s observations about the importance of Elvis’ exposure to Shake Rag are particularly invaluable. Anyone serious about really understanding how the performer who was Elvis Aaron Presley came about, needs to submerge themselves in these subjects.

Another major influence was Brother Frank Smith who encouraged the young Elvis musically.

Many of the early archival visuals are striking in the way they reveal the stark and oppressive nature of what must have been Elvis’ early life.

The DVD bonus features add real value to the documentary:

  • Elvis Week/Elvis Festival
  • Alamo Girls
  • Sun Records Line Up
  • Elvis meets Bill Monroe
  • D.J. Fontana: Elvis on TV
  • Sneaking Into the Fair
  • Memories of the Colonel
  • George Klein Remembers the Coach
  • June Juanico: First Date
  • Dixie Locke Emmons: First Date
  • Magdalene Morgan's Christmas Gift
  • Mike Freeman: Owning Elvis' House
  • Debunking the Myth that Elvis was a Racist

In addition, the documentary features 5 newsreels:

  • Elvis Enters the Army
  • Elvis Leaves the Army
  • Elvis Gets Married
  • Tupelo Tornado
  • "Washington Merry-Go-Round" Elvis Controversy

The documentary is ably narrated by country music legend, Kris Kristofferson.

Video quality: Very good

Audio quality: Very good (basic DVD audio - no 5.1 surround)

Letterbox and Widescreen 16:9

Documentary Running Time: 90 minutes

Bonus Features & Newsreels Running Time: 60 minutes

Total Running Time: 150 minutes

Format: NTSC Region 0

In some respects the title, Elvis: Return To Tupelo, is misleading. The documentary is fundamentally about getting to know the forces which shaped the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  And for this reason the DVD should be a mandatory inclusion in the Elvis library of all fans.

There have been comparisons between Elvis: Return to Tupelo and another excellent DVD documentary, Elvis ’56.  The comparisons are unwarranted as the two documentaries have essentially a different focus.  Elvis 56 has, as its name implies, a focus on just 1 year, while Elvis: Return to Tupelo goes much more widely across time and has less of a focus on Elvis' music.

And (as noted earlier) with a running time of 2.5 hours, Elvis: Return To Tupelo cannot help but provide the viewer with added value for money compared to Elvis: 56 which only runs for under 1 hour.

Verdict: Elvis: Return To Tupelo is one of the best documentaries ever released about Elvis. Anchored by excellent research, its fascinating mix of archival material and firsthand accounts of the young Elvis enrich our understanding of the influences which were integral in shaping the musical style and image of the future King of Rock 'n' Roll. Highly recommended.

Buy "Elvis: Return To Tupelo"

Visit the "Elvis: Return To Tupelo" website & watch the trailer

Read EIN's facinating interview with Tupelo historian, Roy Turner

Comment on this review

Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, September 2008














































































































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