When it comes to popular musical performers, the credit for their success is usually duly directed right at them, with a little cache also gifted to the mix of songwriters, producers, managers and record company execs that helped guide them to the top. For most popular musical artists, their visual image is often nearly as important as their musical abilities, yet the people that help create those visuals usually receive far less credit when it comes to marking out the reasons for an artist’s success.
With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s epic biopic Elvis this week, it’s definitely the right time to look at director Steve Binder, one of the key figures in the creation of Elvis Presley’s essential visual iconography. While music producer and impresario Sam Phillips guided Presley’s early career, and Colonel Tom Parker (played in Luhrmann’s film by Tom Hanks) dominated the latter part of it, several filmmakers also captured Elvis Presley at his performing peak, permanently archiving the seething on-stage charisma of The King.
Denis Sanders brilliantly documented Presley’s extraordinary, pre-downward-spiral early work in Las Vegas with 1970’s masterful Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, while Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge caught The King’s incredible stage presence in 1972’s Elvis On Tour. Director Marty Pasetta took Elvis to a huge, record breaking worldwide audience in 1973 with the utterly essential TV event, Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii.
A host of other directors, meanwhile, mined Presley’s natural charisma and charm for the very uneven collection of big screen feature films that The King headlined throughout the 1960s, with Richard Thorpe (Jailhouse Rock), Michael Curtiz (King Creole), Don Siegel (Flaming Star), George Sidney (Viva Las Vegas), Philip Dunne (Wild In The Country), and William A. Graham (A Change Of Habit) getting the best out of him. Unsung Auteur Norman Taurog, meanwhile, directed the most Elvis movies, with a whopping nine to his credit, though they don’t exactly rate as The King’s best on-screen work.
Arguably the most important screen director in Elvis Presley’s career is prolific music and TV helmer Steve Binder, who called the shots on what is now commonly referred to as Elvis: The 68 Comeback Special. Filmed for television, this music special represented Elvis Presley’s first real live performance of the 1960s, with the singer contracted to make back-to-back film appearances throughout the decade which disappointingly kept him off the stage and the touring circuit.
Though Presley certainly sang and performed in all of his films, those brief musical bits couldn’t hold a candle to the raw, live stage persona that Elvis had become famous for during his breakout years in the 1950s. With Elvis: The 68 Comeback Special, Steve Binder recreated that energy and excitement with what TV Guide subsequently called “the second greatest musical moment in television history next to The Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Binder’s importance to The King’s legacy is now bound even tighter, with the director featuring in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, effectively played by upcoming Australian actor Dacre Montgomery from the TV phenomenon Stranger Things.
Born in 1932, Steve Binder first found success behind the camera when he was still in his twenties, and quickly worked his way up to chief shot-caller. After working on TV projects like Jazz Scene USA, Here’s Edie and The New Steve Allen Show, Binder created one of the most essential musical documents of all time, with the 1964 concert performance film The T.A.M.I Show, which captured a host of soon-to-be major icons (The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Lesley Gore, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys and many more) at their youthful, insouciant, still-starting-out best. It’s a dazzling, truly landmark piece of music cinema, and is still the absolute go-to artefact for fans eager to see these music titans in their creative infancy.
After The T.A.M.I Show, Steve Binder directed episodic TV and created a multitude of small screen specials for a wide variety of artists that helped to establish their visual image and propel their careers. A truly unsung small screen music auteur, Binder effectively showcased the likes of Petula Clark, Liza Minnelli, Mac Davis, Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow, Patti LaBelle, Eddie Rabbit, Randy Travis and many more, and made several specials with Diana Ross, including the legendary Diana Ross Live In Central Park, in which a torrential thunderstorm tore through the venue minutes into Ross’s first set. Binder has also directed a wide range of TV variety shows, but has only made a few forays into the world of narrative, fictional storytelling.
Binder’s 1975 filmed version of James Whitmore’s dynamic one-man stage show as US President Harry S. Truman, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, received great acclaim and saw the actor nominated for an Oscar, but the director’s other efforts have been far less successful. Binder’s 1995 erotic thriller Secret Sins is now completely forgotten, but the director’s other misstep is one of the most notorious in film and TV history, though Binder is justifiably rarely if ever blamed for it.
While George Lucas rightfully receives the shellacking for 1978’s infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special, it was indeed Steve Binder who was in the director’s chair for this much maligned abomination. “I had obviously no input whatsoever on changing anything,” Binder told the podcast How Did This Get Made. “I was just a fireman…I was there to get it done, if CBS decided to move forward at that point, because they were all talking about pulling the plug. But they decided to go forward, and I think the public wasn’t prepared in the television advertising etcetera for what this was. That was the huge mistake. This was not going to be Star Wars 2. This was a variety special focused on selling toys for George Lucas’s merchandising deal.”
Steve Binder’s greatest career achievement is, of course, convincing a nervous, gun-shy Elvis Presley deadened by ten years of variable quality movies to take it back to basics with Elvis: The 68 Comeback Special. Though this TV milestone features plenty of garish, over-stuffed production numbers, it is most famous for Presley’s wonderfully raw and engaging, hotly stripped back, black leather-clad, proto-MTV Unplugged series of intimate performances, which effectively recapture the spark that initially saw Elvis light up the world of popular music. “The entire time that we’re rehearsing the show, Elvis would go into his dressing room, and he would jam with whoever happened to be hanging out,” Binder told The Memphis Flyer. “So we go in there and they would just be having fun and talking about the old days and singing songs I’d never heard before. And I said to myself instantly, ‘This is better than all the big production numbers were doing on stage. We’ve got to get a camera in there.’”
That ingenious idea would, of course, shift, shake and eventually transform into the now legendary sit-down acoustic sequences of Elvis: The 68 Comeback Special, which stand as its unquestionably best moments. Steve Binder not only cooked up the whole idea, but then captured it with wonderfully primal grace, showing off Elvis Presley at his sizzling, charismatic best, and capturing the pure, unadorned majesty of his voice. Steve Binder effectively did it again and again, serving a variety of artists with some of their best moments, while receiving little if any credit for it. Though not an Unsung Auteur in the typical sense usually laid out by this ongoing column, Steve Binder is a gifted non-fiction filmmaker whose contributions to popular music cannot be understated.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.