In 1968, Elvis Presley was an ageing, faded icon, largely disregarded by the free love/anti-war youth of the 60s. Towards the end of a particularly rough year, he filmed the ’68 Comeback Special, an intimate studio gig that was later broadcast on television. Pioneering in form, it was filmed in the style of a live event but edited for TV out of several shorter sessions, each with a different live audience.
Decades later, Texan live artist Greg Wohead watches this show on his laptop in a hotel room. A connection was made in that room that lead to the making of Comeback Special, and re-watching the broadcast recording hundreds of times. Wohead’s consequent intimacy with this programme creates an homage to The King at a crossroads. Through the simple use of repetition, narration and audience interaction, he creates a part-documentary, part-role play tribute act saturated with nostalgia for an event he never experienced.
Beginning as a monologue of the set up of the ’68 Comeback Special, Wohead narrates a detailed description of the artists, audience and staging. This telling is emotionless and clinical, but the anti-theatricality is compelling in its specificity. It’s easy to picture the scene he describes, especially considering the square stage he stands on with audience on all four sides mirrors his description. Timothy X Atack’s ambient sound bath quietly soothes with its timelessness, aiding the collective time travel to that moment in history. Wohead’s story zeros in on a singular sequence, repeating it again and again. The trivial becomes epic, the improvised becomes choreographed.
The audience is both a witness and a participator in Wohead’s devotion. As he gradually transforms into Elvis, he assigns simple, repetitive actions in time with the dialogue we can hear, but not see. This is participatory arts at its best – Wohead needs the audience to create this piece, but doesn’t condescend. We are all equal, he just has a bit more practice than the rest of us. The final performance of this moment, though lasting about fifteen seconds, unites and warms the room. It’s a grand feeling.
In a world of reality television and constant documentation, Comeback Special is a reminder of the artifice in seemingly live, unscripted events, the importance of the insignificant moments and the need to bond with fellow human beings over the extraordinary act of performance making. Marvellously effective and simple, Greg Wohead turns a standard tribute show on its head. There is no cheese, no ill-fitting white jumpsuits or cheap wigs – just a man exploring a moment in the past with a bunch of strangers.
Comeback Special is touring various venues through 15th May.
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