The King's Third Act
Elvis Presley in Amazingly Dynamic Form and At the Height of His Formidable Powers Performance is what drives the 2001 edit of 'Elvis: That's the Way It Is.'
This new incarnation—Elvis Presley as a touring concert artist (following his emergence as a 1950s rock 'n' roll radical and his second act as a 1960s Hollywood hitmaker)—would find him returning to his roots as a live performer, encompassing a wider range of material as he appeared before ever-larger audiences. This renaissance was unfortunately brief; by the mid-1970s, Presley's substance abuse and self-destructive tendencies would catch up with him. He would be a bloated mess in the final months of his short life, but in 1970, he was in peak physical condition and artistically at the top of his game.
Copious evidence of this is now offered in a new package from Sony Legacy, which features two DVDs in addition to eight compact discs; it includes all the audio from the run of concerts at the International Hotel in Las Vegas that were filmed for the project as well as a splendidly illustrated 80-page booklet. (The first CD is actually the original 1970 LP released in conjunction with the theatrical film and bearing the same title, even though it's a collection of mostly studio tracks recorded in Nashville.)
The DVDs contain two very different versions of the 1970 feature: the original theatrical edit and the 2001 "restoration." In 1970, director Denis Sanders, not satisfied with capturing Presley in performance on stage, felt the need to make a true documentary. While the copious rehearsal footage is often fascinating, other behind-the-scenes moments are far less so. The 1970 edit presents too much interview footage with Elvis fans, most of whom were too young to have experienced Presley during his 1950s breakthrough—as if to prove that his audience extended beyond his original rock 'n' roll following. The 2001 edit is a vast improvement, offering more footage of Elvis in action and omitting nearly all of the tedious fan interviews.
It's his performance that drives "Elvis: That's the Way It Is." At the start of his career, Presley was widely perceived as a divisive figure in American culture. No entertainer did more, even inadvertently, to create the generation gap. RCA Records marketed his songs specifically to teenagers—and if the music annoyed their parents, so much the better. Yet in the final and, in many ways, the most rewarding phase of Presley's career, the singer entered into what seems, in retrospective, like a musical crusade to bring people together. In this, his major asset was his versatility as a performer, which empowered him to be an old-school entertainer in the tradition of Frank Sinatra (as opposed to a singer-songwriter, who was limited to doing his own compositions). Presley sang any song in any genre that suited him.
After roughly a half hour of behind-the-scenes footage (and watching celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr., Cary Grant, George Hamilton and even Xavier Cugat and Charo filing in), the concert starts with a medley of two early Elvis blues numbers, "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train." Like Sinatra alternating between classic Cole Porter and something more contemporary or written expressly for him, Presley hops from genre to genre, imbuing it all with his majestic voice and dynamic personality.
From basic 12-bar Delta-style blues, he moves to the Gospel-infused soul music of Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman." Before the evening is through, he also sings the contemporary country classic "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Simon & Garfunkel's folk-rock spiritual "Bridge Over Troubled Water." In addition, the Dusty Springfield hit "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," which was originally recorded by co-composer Pino Donaggio as "Io che non vivo (senza te)," reflects Presley's fascination with Italian music. And two Beatles songs also turn up in the rehearsals and the concert, "Something" and "Get Back." All of which is in addition to the many Elvis signatures that he reprises, both old ("Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel") and new ("Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto"). A few years later he would attempt to bring all of America together with his "American Trilogy," which juxtaposed a song from the North, the South and an African-American spiritual.
The 1970 concert is essentially one climax after another, not only because the editors assembled the footage from six different shows, but because Presley himself—in what has become his trademark white jumpsuit—is in amazingly dynamic form and at the height of his formidable powers. One of the heart-stoppers is the great Brill Building anthem "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"; thanks to the King's unstoppable energy, sheer chops and overwhelming passion (not to mention effortlessly hip kung-fu moves), he makes everyone else who ever sang the song, including the Righteous Brothers, seem like mere pretenders. And yet, as searingly dramatic as Presley is, he doesn't lose his sense of humor; when he gets to the line "Baby, I'd get down on my knees for you," he shouts the aside "if this suit wasn't too tight!"
Even the 10-disc box doesn't amount to the whole story: Warner Bros. released a two-disc Blu-ray set of the film, again with the 1970 and 2001 edits, but with a different selection of outtakes and extra footage. (Even more footage from the individual concerts was issued on a 3-DVD bootleg a few years ago.)
Theatrical concert movies were pretty much wiped out by MTV in the mid-1980s as kids were getting pop-music videos at home 24 hours a day. Yet special spectacles are now edging their way back into cinemas, and this week the restored "Elvis: That's the Way It Is" will be shown nationally in movie theaters. Elvis may be singing about having lost something, but this remarkable film, like the singer himself, has only gained in stature over the past four decades.
Mr. Friedwald writes the weekly Jazz Scene column for the Journal.