Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 4, 2014)
In the decades since his death in 1977, the public seemed to focus on a cartoony version of Elvis Presley and his singing/performing abilities have receded to the background. With a reworked version of a 1970 concert documentary called Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, an attempt was made to bring back the vision of Presley as a vital, exciting attraction. Unfortunately, the result is only partially successful.
When the film fails, it does so because of the campiness Elvis had introduced into his act. During the Sixties, Elvis - as with virtually all of the rock stars of the Fifties - had become irrelevant in the face of the big acts of the Sixties. After wasting away in one glossy Hollywood production after another, Presley attempted to reclaim his crown with a 1968 comeback TV special and album
It worked, as it depicted Elvis as fierce and alive, and he presented his music in a rootsy and thrilling manner. To capitalize on his regained popularity, Elvis started to perform live again; apparently he’d done no concerts since the mid-Fifties.
Rather than tour, Presley took up residence for a long stint at the Las Vegas International Hotel in 1969. He followed this month-long gig with a similar stint the following year, and soon after that ended, Presley embarked on a proper US tour.
In the 1970 performances shot for That’s the Way It Is, Elvis unquestionably looks good. Since he’d been famous for so long at the time, we forget that he was only 35 years old in 1970. In rock star terms, that was relatively ancient in that era. Though it seems pretty young today, no one expected rock performers to go past their mid-twenties back then, and it took the continuing careers of acts like the Stones to expand the horizons of how old is too old to rock.
In addition to his fit and trim appearance, Elvis featured a hot band, with many musicians who had performed with him in his 1968 special. The core group - known as the “TCB Band” - presented guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, keyboard player Glen Hardin and drummer Ron Tutt, all excellent performers who also can be seen in the splendid Roy Orbison A Black and White Night concert. Had Elvis stuck with just a small core group, this show could have been special, but instead he expanded the organization to a ridiculous extreme; a slew of extra musicians and singers clutter the stage and help make the music too ornate and syrupy.
Not many absolutes exist in this world, but I do know of at least one: rock ‘n’ roll should never be performed in a Las Vegas showroom. I suppose there may be a worse setting for this kind of music, but I can’t think of one, and the location immediately makes prospects for a hot show unlikely.
Unfortunately, Elvis plays down to his setting and audience throughout much of the show. This is King as Clown, and he often goofs around in a manner that distracts from the performance. He doesn’t seem to take the music seriously, so neither do I.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect performers to act as though they’re curing cancer when they play, and I’m all for fun and visual shows. However, I don’t like to see musicians joke it up through their material, and the lack of respect with which Presley treats classics like “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” bothers me.
The latter tune represents the nadir of the performance as Elvis barely bothers to sing the song. Instead, he spends the period smooching with adoring female fans in the crowd. He even offers a romp through the audience, something that just seems lame.
That’s the Way It Is works quite well at times, however, which just serves to make its flaws that much more frustrating. During the first third of the movie, we’re treated to footage of Elvis rehearsing with the core band. These offer tantalizing glimpses of the solid show that could have been and present interesting looks behind the scenes. The more time I spend with the TCBs, the better, so this opening half an hour or so could be quite stimulating.
Some of the songs presented during the concert proper cook nicely as well. “Patch It Up” has been stuck in my head for the last few days, and when Elvis launches a hot version of “One Night”, it looks like the show might actually become something worth watching.
However, he immediately halts the rising fervor with a goofy vocal that ruins “Don’t Be Cruel”. “Blue Suede Shoes” and “All Shook Up” have their moments, but the show limps to a close with overwrought tunes “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “Suspicious Minds” before the ultimate conclusion with “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. The latter is a solid song at its heart, but Elvis smothers it with schmaltz.
I also find Elvis to be in moderately poor voice throughout much of the show. He seems off-key a lot of the time, and though he appears to have been in good shape, he sounds winded during a lot of the performance. The weakness of his vocals harms the performances even more, especially when contrasted with the crisp musical quality of the TCBs.
Ultimately, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is gives us occasional peeks of what made Elvis special, but these are too few and far between to provide a genuinely special experience. Elvis would provide less inspiring performances but this one remains erratic and flawed.