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How Elvis Got Reinvented and Blood, Sweat & Tears Was Destroyed

Award-winning documentarian John Scheinfeld goes behind the scenes of his two new hot rock ’n’ roll documentaries

spinner image elvis presley performing during his 1968 comeback television special and a group portrait of the music group blood sweat and tears
Elvis Presley (left) and Blood, Sweat & Tears
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; CBS/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Filmmaker John Scheinfeld knows his musicians. The Emmy-, Grammy- and Writers Guild of America award-nominee, who brought you acclaimed documentaries on Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Bette Midler, Herb Alpert and Bing Crosby, has two hot new music documentaries heating up the summer.

What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?, playing now in theaters, tells the tale of the jazz-rockers whose 1970 Grammy album of the year spent seven weeks at number 1 before the band was politically canceled and destroyed. The second, Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback, arrives August 15 on Paramount+, just one day before the 46th anniversary of the King’s death.​

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The secret behind Scheinfeld’s success? A great documentary, he says, “has to be a story that most people don’t know.” And that story “has to be compelling enough to be worthy of people’s attention for a full feature.” Mission accomplished on Scheinfeld’s new pair of inspiring yet tragic biopics. He shares some behind-the-scenes details about capturing Elvis and Blood, Sweat & Tears, with AARP.

Why Elvis? Don’t we know everything we could possibly know about Elvis?

​I felt it was important to humanize Elvis. We all know the cliché of the jumpsuit, the sideburns and the “thank you very much.” But there’s a person there. Steve Binder, the TV special’s director, and other cast members were able to give us a perspective on what Elvis might have been thinking or feeling at the time during production — all of which flesh him out as a three-dimensional human being and help us to understand him more.

Most of the books and documentaries on him just perpetuate the legend. I wanted to bring him alive for the audience so they could, at least in some small way, get to know Elvis as a person.

When we “meet” Elvis in your film, it’s 1968 and he’s essentially lost all of the status he’d gained as an American rock ’n’ roll icon. What happened?​By 1968, Elvis wasn’t just out of step with pop culture, but with the entire social and political cultural landscape of the country. There were edgy, uncomfortable, difficult things going on, and in my film I do little flash cuts with these ridiculous moments from Elvis’ movies to show the contrast of just how out of touch he was. ​

There’s a shelf life for these artists and I think we all felt that Elvis would have transcended this somehow. But we’re all a by-product of choices we make. Some choices were made by the Colonel (Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager), even back to him going into the Army, that impacted his career in a way that when the Beatles showed up on the scene it put the exclamation mark on his descent into irrelevancy. He was seen as a joke.

We learn from your movie that he was nearly paralyzed with anxiety when filming the special.​Elvis hadn’t been on stage for years. He was scared to death.

But it succeeded — beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. What happened?

spinner image elvis presley smiles with his guitar as he stands in front of an audience during his 1968 comeback special
Elvis Presley during his '68 Comeback Special.
Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

That was the question I asked myself when we were putting this together: What was it about 1968 that would explain this TV special becoming the most-watched show of the entire year?​

In some ways, Elvis came to represent looking back at a simpler time; we could sit back and enjoy this performance and not have to think about all the other stuff that was going on in the world right then. Yes, it was the year of Jefferson Airplane, but there was something that Elvis represented to a broad audience, even young people. The success of the TV special set Elvis up for the final act of his life, which has some moments of triumph and, then, of course, the descent into an early death.

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You were working on ‘Reinventing Elvis’ when Baz Luhrmann’s big ‘Elvis’ biopic came out. What impact did that film have on you?

Baz Luhrmann is a great filmmaker; his film had great energy and great craft. And Austin Butler was fantastic in it. But there’s a difference between a scripted feature and a documentary. My wife and I went to a sneak preview screening at Warner Brothers while we were making the documentary. I kept leaning over to her and saying, “Well, that didn’t happen” and “that didn’t happen,” especially the way they portrayed the comeback special.

What’s your take on Elvis’ androgynous style that Luhrmann evoked in his movie? 

So many people we interviewed who worked on the special in 1968 used the same word to describe Elvis: beautiful. Steve Binder told me that while some movie stars are better to shoot from the left or the right side, Elvis didn’t have a bad side. You could shoot him any which way and he’d be beautiful.

But from my point of view, Elvis was not androgynous. If you look at the footage in Reinventing Elvis of the screaming girls salivating over this hunk of humanity, I think that tells you all you need to know about Elvis’ appeal. And that raw, animalistic sexuality when he emerged in the ’50s stayed with him all the way into the ’70s. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him.

Turning to Blood, Sweat & Tears, the question literally is, what the hell happened to them?

The band’s drummer, Bobby Colomby, had seen another of my films, and we had lunch two months before COVID hit. I said, “What the hell happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? You guys were one of the biggest bands in the world and then you weren’t. What happened?” And that’s the story we tell in the film.

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The background is wild: In 1970, the U.S. State Department came after BST’s Canadian-born singer David Clayton-Thomas, saying that due to visa issues, he could be deported if the band didn’t perform a government-sponsored tour of countries behind the Iron Curtain, in the process making them tacit representatives of the Nixon administration. That couldn’t have gone down well with the band’s largely counterculture fans.

spinner image david clayton thomas singing into a microphone with his left fist in the air while performing onstage with his band blood sweat and tears
David Clayton-Thomas (left) and Blood Sweat & Tears performing onstage in 1970.
Steve Morley/Redferns

It was an early example of canceling. And I think you’ll see many parallels between 1970 and 2023. The country was as polarized then as it is now, between left and right, blue and red, east and west. The specifics were different but the polarization was the same.

These days, you’re attacked usually by the left or the right. What made the BST situation unique is that they got hammered by both sides. And they could not survive that. Absolutely they were canceled.

They were unable to recover?

I would argue that the tour exacerbated personal conflicts within the band and suddenly they had problems agreeing on what songs they were going to record, as well as where and how often they were going to perform. It increased those divisions to the point where about 18 months later, three of the members left and then six months after that, another three left and finally it was only Bobby Colomby soldiering on.​ Imagine that by doing something that you felt you needed to do to save the band, you end up killing it. It was such a dramatic thing for them. “We had to go on that tour,” they said.

And you’ve got footage of them actually there. How in the world did that happen, behind the Iron Curtain?

They had a documentary team that followed them from start to finish on the Iron Curtain tour, who shot 65 hours of material. But no one knew where it was. It became a sleuthing challenge: The companies involved in the shooting had gone belly-up and most of the people involved in it had died. We tried every storage facility in New York and L.A. where the footage might have ended up. We didn’t find it.​

But during COVID, a woman who had loose-leaf binders of stuff in the vault from the 1960s and ’70s found a vague reference to Blood, Sweat & Tears. She found a canister marked “For Destruction,” which was this short version of the original documentary that had never happened. A pristine print, never shown; no one knew it was there since 1971 and we got it! It’s such a fascinating story.

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