Turner Classic Movies has recently restored the concert film/documentary “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is,” adding “lost” footage, and re-cutting the entire film. The new (2007) two-disc set includes the original DVD release augmented with the new, superior version and a few extras. The new film packs in more Presley by replacing fan footage of incredibly dorky Elvis fans that range from a factory worker to two tragically nerdy young girls and their cat (who is ALSO an Elvis fan, if they can be believed). From behind Coke bottle-bottom glasses a fourth, nearly toothless, fan calls Elvis “The Willie Mays of entertainment.” I watched the original 1970 theatrical release first, because I remember seeing it at a drive-in when I was nine, and I remember being suitably impressed. Forget that the three-inch, tinny drive-in speakers were possibly the worst vehicle for music since the wire recorder; it was all about seeing a larger-than-life figure thirty feet tall. I was expecting to find that I didn’t know diddly about music, or movies, at that age, but both versions of this “concermentary” are worth hiding in the trunk of a car for. Presley continually goofs around with the band, the back-up singers, and his “Memphis Mafia.” The Big E gets shocked by an ungrounded microphone, and shouts; “Son of a BITCH!” but quickly recovers his playful persona, and goes happily back to rehearsal. You get the feeling that things would have been different, if the cameras weren’t running… after all, this is a man who used to shoot televisions when Robert Goulet came onscreen. After ten years of feature films, Elvis is practiced at pretending there isn’t a grand piano-sized movie camera pointed at him, but his musicians, hangers-on, and keepers are woefully inept at it. Speaking of keepers, Elvis’ long-time manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is nowhere to be found. You’d think a guy who’s taking a 50% commission would at least make an appearance!
Wearing paisley shirts, mutton chop sideburns, and his trademark sunglasses, Elvis is still in his prime. He was 35 years old when the film was released, but he’s slender and looks ten years younger. It’s hard to believe he was dead just seven years later. The concert portions were filmed during Presley’s third season in Vegas, and the self-parody is starting to creep in. “The Way it is” documents the end of Elvis’ relevance as a performer, and it’s worth seeing for that reason. The president of The International Hotel, looking like every bad guy in a 70’s movie, says that they pay Elvis “a goodly sum of money,” but he’s worth every bit of it. He says Elvis was the only star to fill the room to its capacity–approximately 4,100 people. Although Presley failed in Vegas in the 50’s, by the 70’s, no one could out-draw him–and his competition included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Barbra Streisand. Not bad for a guy who had stopped performing live, for ten years, until two years earlier. Elvis’ stage show is overblown (I should be so lucky!) and there’s enough strobe footage to give an epileptic a front row seat for Elvis’ NEXT concert. Some of the stage-show, songs, and arrangements are beyond schmaltzy, but there’s no denying that Elvis’ powerful presence transcends his surroundings and his material, and that’s hard to do in a white rhinestone jumpsuit. It’s been said that every rock star wants to be a comedian, and every comedian wants to be a rock star, but Elvis has a better sense of humor than most. When several microphones he’s been handed cut out on him, he grabs a bouquet of microphones and goes back into the song where he left off. And he genuinely seems to enjoy his fans–if he doesn’t he’s a better actor than his performance in “Harem Scarum” would indicate.
Elvis is one of the most adored performers in musical history, but what he never got credit for was inventing alternative comedy. Elvis was SO big, and SO successful that he couldn’t afford to take himself seriously–the world already had one Frank Sinatra. Only Dean Martin could match Elvis, ton for ton, of tomfoolery during his performances. Presley goes through his karate moves like he’s sleepwalking, giggles his way through his version of B.J. Thomas’ latest record, and even takes out a cheat sheet to keep from forgetting the lyrics. Having Presley cover your current release has got to be like living the famous scene from Animal House: “Mind if we dance wif yo’ dates?” Thomas isn’t the only one who gets one-upped. Presley also performs songs by The Bee Gees, Neil Diamond and Paul Simon. The film wraps with concert footage, including staples of his live shows: “One Night,” “Tiger Man,” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis makes a circle through the audience, and wraps things up with two of his best songs; “Suspicious Minds” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and the curtain comes down. Long live The King.