July 5, 2014

Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Denis Sanders
Stars: Elvis Presley, James Burton, Millie Kirkham

What it's about. By 1970, a series of bad movies had ended the career of Elvis Presley as an actor. But his records were selling well, and he was the top draw in Vegas. To capitalize on his overwhelming success in "Sin City", Elvis' longtime manager, "Colonel" Parker, commissioned an MGM documentary on Elvis in Las Vegas.

We are the fly on the wall for Elvis rehearsals with his core band (featuring nimble-fingered guitarist James Burton) and both black female and white male backing vocalists. Elvis is clearly nervous, especially regarding the lyrics to "I Just Can't Help Believing", but all goes well.

How others will see it. Critics tend to pick Jailhouse Rock as Elvis' best film, and certainly it is his most consequential. Elvis fans voting at imdb.com feel otherwise. His Aloha from Hawaii 1973 satellite television special draws an immense 8.4 rating, and, among theatrical releases, Elvis: That's the Way It Is has the highest rating at 7.9.

It is understandable that voters prefer the concert films, stripped of lame plots, bad dialogue, and dancing party girls in favor of the "real" Elvis, the singer who had Top 40 hits every year between 1956 and his 1977 demise. It is less understandable why the Adult Contemporary Elvis of the Hawaii special would outrate the rock 'n' roll Elvis of his 1970 MGM documentary, but it may have to do with the lower vote total of the former, which likely has a high percentage of Elvis fans relative to curious cinephiles.

It has to be said at this point that there are two drastically different versions of Elvis: That's the Way It Is. The original theatrical release had a sizable chunk of talking head and fan interviews. In 2001, Turner Classic Movies reworked the movie, incorporating "lost" concert and rehearsal footage from the MGM vaults and removing non-Elvis clips, such that the King of Rock and Roll is virtually always on screen.

This review is for the latter version. Indeed, the original edit is no longer shown on television, and is available only as part of the two-DVD set.

How I felt about it. From a musical standpoint, the low point is "Love Me Tender", which degenerates into an Elvis kissing marathon of all the willing women under 40 in the front half of the audience.

Otherwise, the music is very good, and Elvis looks both fit and youthful. The core band is first rate. The backing singers are extraneous, but on the other hand, jobs are always scarce, and it is kind for Elvis to share the wealth. Elvis' joshing with audiences sometimes becomes tedious, but it's all in good fun, and he soon gets back on track with the next number.

It is interesting that Elvis, arguably the most accomplished singer (along with Frank Sinatra) of his era, appears so nervous. At one point, he asks that the lyrics of "I Just Can't Help Believing" be taped to his chair. We realize why the "Memphis Mafia" are omnipresent: he depends upon their emotional support.

It is also true that the Elvis of 1970 has moderately diminished talent relative to the spectacular singer he was in 1960 (compare with "It's Now or Never"), and he was less committed to rockers than, say, in 1956 (when his "Hound Dog" could really bite).

Still, the 1970 Vegas Elvis remains quite good, perhaps even better than the year before since his recent successes had given him confidence. The routine of chestnut titles was fresh instead of worn into the ruts, as it would be later in the decades, when an Elvis concert could unintentionally descend into an Elvis parody.