Picks and Pans Review: Elvis from the Waist Up

updated 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

VH1 (Mon., Aug. 11, 10 p.m. ET)

Grade for both: B

Asked which Elvis Presley they preferred to see on a stamp, Americans in 1992 overwhelmingly picked the young rock-and-roll rebel over the older Las Vegas legend. Six days before the 20th anniversary of Presley's death, Showtime premieres an irreverent TV movie—inspired by an actual 1970 event—that features the postal reject: a pro-establishment icon satiated with success at 35. Bored in the comfortable isolation of Grace-land and frustrated by his sense of pop-cultural irrelevance in the Age of Aquarius, Elvis (impersonated with a touch of sympathy by Rick Peters) flies to Washington to seek an official role in the war on drugs—his own pill-popping notwithstanding. His quest leads to an Oval Office audience with a similarly isolated, similarly frustrated Richard Nixon (Bob Gunton, in an extremely broad but funny caricature). Dick Cavett's arch narration and other mock-documentary devices grow a bit tiresome during the long buildup, as does the film's habit of underlining the jokes. But the Oval Office meeting is worth the wait, as the King and the President find themselves in political, astrological and, yes, musical harmony.

Elvis from the Waist Up should win his fans' stamp of approval. The one-hour documentary, narrated by U2's Bono, focuses on Presley's TV appearances of 1956-57. The title refers to the last of his three shots on The Ed Sullivan Show, when the host reportedly ordered the camera operator to aim north of Elvis's notorious pelvis. But in addition to his work on Sullivan's "really big shew," VHl offers clips of Presley's earlier, less storied performances on the variety programs of Steve Allen, Milton Berle and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It's a kick to watch his confidence and star power grow so dramatically in only a year.

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