When Turner Classic Movies premiered a Special Edition of the concert film Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, I was approached to write a feature article about the restoration for the TCM web site. An abbreviated version became their PR Department’s official press release for the event.
The promotional tagline for the original theatrical release of the concert documentary Elvis – That’s the Way It Is (MGM 1970, Dir. Denis Sanders) read, “a film about him.” If that seemed to contain a hint of deification, at least history has vindicated the suggestion. A recent Gallup Poll not only ranked Elvis the most important figure in rock music in public opinion by an extremely wide margin, but also reported that an astounding 45% of Americans consider themselves an Elvis fan. The gospel of Elvis could accurately preach that Elvis is everywhere. Just try reading through a random magazine or watching a few hours of television without finding some reference to Elvis – it can scarcely be done. The cultural obsession continues unabated, and with mainstream media fracturing into smaller niches, there seems an ever-decreasing likelihood that the new century will produce its equal.
Come all ye faithful to witness the second coming of the concert film Elvis – That’s the Way It Is in its elaborately restored and revised Special Edition. What was always the best source for seeing Elvis in his jumpsuited live 70’s mode is now, more than ever, truly a film about him. Gone are the awkwardly dated asides intended to place Elvis in cultural context after the close of a decade that cast some doubt on the matter, Elvis’ significance now being quite obvious. Thankfully we no longer need sit through the goofy fan testimonials, the footage of a British fan club with some downright scary Elvis imitators, interviews with the Las Vegas hotel staff, and the stray descent into manager Colonel Tom Parker’s on-site promotions office with its walls and ceilings tackily plastered with posters and 8 x 10’s like a trailer park shrine to “E”-commerce.
In the place of all these is more Elvis, with the focus now aimed solely on the musicianship and interaction with his band and backup groups, as they endeavor to live up to the expectations of not just a Vegas headline show, but an Elvis Presley Vegas Headline Show. From the preliminary jam sessions with Elvis’ TCB band (here seen masterfully Takin’ Care of Business), through the stage rehearsals with backup vocalists and orchestra, to the performances selected from four nights and six shows in the MGM Grand Hilton International Hotel showroom, That’s the Way It Is Special Edition gives us the kind of privileged view of Elvis as both a working musician and dedicated showman that previously existed only in fans’ fervent wishes. Those who prize Elvis’ artistry above the many gaudy distractions associated with his image have reason to rejoice. At last, Elvis in pure form.
Head editor Rick Schmidlin, who also supervised the recent restoration of Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil, along with other prominent re-releases, conducted an exhaustive five month search for all of Turner’s (via the acquired MGM film library) existing film negatives and work prints. This produced up to four additional hours of usable footage, often culled from individual scraps, some as short as a few seconds long. Though there are many sequences of entirely new material, comprising roughly 45% of the Special Edition, the increased intimacy with Elvis’ creative process and stage persona is afforded by more than just simple additions and the swapping of new material for old. The entire film, including repeats of original performances, has been re-edited, with virtually every cut reflecting some change in length and rhythm.
With very few concert films having been produced prior to 1970 (Woodstock being the primary example), the original team had limited live performance editing experience, further hindered by that period’s compromising equipment. The restoration crew, however, benefited from decades of musical film experience, now editing on non-linear digital systems. The results are strong testament to director Dennis Sanders’ extremely thorough, but previously under-utilized, coverage of the live shows. Every sequence contains a generous number of striking new close ups, and wide shots of the stage and showroom. Precision-timed montages capture the musicians and vocal groups making eye contact with and taking cues from Elvis as he becomes a six foot tall conductor’s baton.
Some impressionistic editing choices are in evidence, such as a more generous use of cross dissolves (as opposed to hard cuts) during the songs. This is especially effective in the more melodramatic ballads, such as Elvis’ brooding version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” now seen in more cinematic presentation. On the flip side are some “fast forward” sequence that transition between rehearsal and performance scenes. Elvis, his players, and entourage are seen filing into new spaces, setting up, even breaking for lunch in fast motion over the frantic strains of Elvis’ familiar stage entrance music, illustrating the hectic pace of the show biz grind.
Each new location is also now established with titles explaining where and when the footage was taken. Solo shots of the core stage band are also accompanied by welcomed titles identifying each of Elvis’ gifted sidemen who helped create his ambitiously eclectic 70’s sound. Nice to see James Burton (lead guitar,) and company get their due.
Naturally there are vast improvements in the image and sound quality. With sixty thousand feet of original film negative recovered and work print used very sparingly when necessary, the film looks essentially pristine after digital repairs. Deep blacks and vibrant colors erase memories of the faded and scratched master prints. And perhaps most significantly, the sound has been transformed from the theatrical’s flat mono to an electrifying stereo digital mix derived from the original 16 track masters, as engineered by Bruce Botnick, who boasts all the original Doors albums among his credits. Now when you see the phalanx of musicians flanking Elvis on stage, you can hear what they are individually playing. Fidelity to the visual and sonic spectacle of Elvis have never been better.
We will now compare the material contained in the two versions. First the vital stat’s: At 97 minutes Special Edition is 13 minutes shorter than the original, yet contains more songs, due to the extraneous material that was cut. Both versions contain a concert recording during the opening credits (“Mystery Train/Tiger Man”), then 17 songs each (counting songs heard in two versions twice) in rehearsal, with most rehearsal songs heard only in excerpt. In the concert portion however, the original’s 16 tunes (including a mere truncated reprise of “Tiger Man”) are done 4 better by Special Edition, if you include the coda version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” during the closing credits (which, due to song copyright complications will not be included on the accompanying DVD release.) In addition, some songs reappear, but in different performances captured from other shows.
Although both versions begin with a title sequence featuring the live “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” medley, Special Edition starts with a series of Las Vegas exterior neon shots (from the same pool of shots previously utilized in the original’s “Heartbreak Hotel” sequence) and shots of the towering Elvis marquee. We quickly cut to Elvis performing the tune, with titles laid over electric live footage. Throughout the song we see cutaways of Elvis acting up in different outfits and shows, slow motion, then sped-up, with audience reactions, some of which hold on freeze frames that suggest nostalgic snapshots portraying period hair-do’s and makeup (most glimpses of the audience depict screaming females, naturally.) Some of these crowd shots as well as a quick backstage scene are taken from a Phoenix, AZ coliseum show at which MGM grabbed footage one month after the Vegas shows were filmed. Curiously, the original version features little else but audience footage from the Phoenix show during it’s opening, creating a strange impression of distance from both Elvis and our Las Vegas setting, with blocky titles presented in split-screen style providing further distraction. The difference in the two is instantly made clear: in the Special Edition, Elvis is front and center.
The MGM Studio Rehearsals
For the first set of rehearsals, Special Edition establishes the setting by showing Elvis and entourage member Joe Esposito drive onto the MGM lot, with accompanying title establishing the Culver City, CA location. Inside, Elvis looks into the lens saying “Good morning, Hollywood camera,” which is how the section begins in the original version. As before, Elvis explains that the rhythm section is the backbone of the band. Titles explain that they are reviewing recordings from a recent studio session, and that rehearsals were filmed over 3 days in Los Angeles (in mid-July, 1970.)
A few rehearsal numbers are now absent, including “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” “The Next Step Is Love,” and “Stranger In the Crowd.” The loss of these tunes represents a choice also reflected in the concert segment to steer away from some of the contemporary pop numbers that Elvis was introducing into the act (having recorded some of them months before) in favor of more of the roots rock material that would remain a staple of his show after the others were dropped.
The first song E and band sink their teeth into sets this tone with, appropriately, Elvis’ first single, “That’s All Right,” seen in the same performance, but now generously extended to include a much more rocking climax. New songs we get to hear in Special Edition rehearsals are the sound-alike rockabilly gem “My Baby Left Me,” his timeless 50’s panter “Love Me,” and, happily, the complete “Little Sister/Get Back” medley, which was previously cut off before it reached the Beatle portion.
Much of Elvis’ clowning around is retained; we still get the home movie silliness of him tossing around his microphone and guitar, announcing he’s busted the seat of his pants, and tumbling off the edge of his piano bench like Victor Borge. But what has been cited by some as signs of the singer seeking distraction from encroaching boredom (a theory that becomes more relevant a few years later in Elvis’ life) can now be more accurately seen as Elvis working to inject a spirit of fun and spontaneity, which he considered essential to his music, into these run-throughs.
Las Vegas Rehearsals
The on-site rehearsals began Aug. 1st, and we first see his backup vocal groups The Sweet Inspirations (also known for singing with Aretha Franklin and on their own) and The Imperials (here looking like a group of Elvis impersonators) rehearsing to Elvis’ recent recordings, supervised by Elvis’ studio producer Felton Jarvis. Similar rehearsal of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is depicted in the original version, but they now sing “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights” as the action cross cuts back and forth between vocal groups and Elvis performing the same song with the instrumentalists still back in LA, with the sound mixed together seamlessly. A quick transition with some Vegas street scenes, then Elvis and band join the singers in the new rehearsal space. After an even more melodramatic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” everyone shifts gears into a giddy, spontaneous “The Happy Yodeler,” (yes, Elvis yodels convincingly – are you surprised?) and a bluesy, half-remembered “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” Both tunes are rarely heard new additions, and listen closely to the latter for the even rarer Elvis expletive not deleted.
By this point anyone familiar with the original version can appreciate the focus on the music-making, free of the mish-mash of asides that would already have cluttered the film by this point, and on into the concert sequences. No Elvis fan could miss the embarrassment of being represented by two geeky girls who claim their cat is a “good Elvis fan (who) likes the Vegas album because it’s got a lot of action.” And could anyone ever explain why Elvis, while running through “Polk Salad Annie,” once had to share time on the multi-sectioned screen with the kitchen staff de-thawing meat for the dinner-show crowd’s consumption? A comment on Col. Parker’s stoking of the Elvis consumerism machine, perhaps, but sorely lacking in a proper context to make such a point.
The Bee Gees cover “Words” begins in the rehearsal room, finishing on the showroom stage, with the band now executing the arrangement details Elvis was dictating in an earlier run-through. This new addition replaces rehearsals of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin” and “Polk Salad Annie,” which are still heard in other segments of Special Edition. Though it’s clear the show date approaches, there doesn’t seem to be much mounting tension as some of the guys from Elvis’ Memphis Mafia instigate a water fight with him from the audience seats during the tender ballad “Mary In the Morning.” As also seen in the original version, Elvis revels in the horseplay.
But it’s a different mood altogether backstage before opening night. Elvis tries to stave off the pre-show jitters by reading humorous telegrams to his buddies, while in the lobby celeb’s file in for the show: Cary Grant, Xavier Cugat, Charro, Juliet Prowse, Sammy Davis Jr.; classic Vegas atmosphere in full splendor. Most of this material is the same as before with minor variations, but striking new cutaways of lucky ticket holders flooding the lobby and filling the enormous showroom to capacity increases the anticipation, as Elvis’s jokes (“If the songs don’t go over, we can do a medley of costumes”) give way to visible nervousness and concerns he’ll forget his lyrics. Then before we know it he is jumpsuited up and striding solemnly back stage toward his moment of truth.
The show portion now contains 20 songs to the original’s 16, with a shift toward more “classic” Elvis material. Hence we lose “I’ve Lost You,” “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” and astonishingly, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (at least “Bridge” has been heard twice in rehearsal in SE.) Newly added songs include “I Got a Woman,” “Hound Dog,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” Of particular interest are two more additions “The Wonder of You” and “In the Ghetto,” both stylistically progressive Top Ten hits that somehow cannot be seen performed elsewhere by Elvis in any of his movies or TV specials (you could only have seen them in the home video realease of outtakes, “The Lost Performances.”) Two more new contempo numbers fill out the set, a thundering cover of the Dusty Springfield hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and the soul-tinged country song “Just Pretend.”
From the opening tune, “That’s All Right,” the editing increases the intimacy between star and viewer. As he sings the first lines, you see Elvis glance self consciously back and forth into the screaming audience. Wide shots of the stage, close up audience reactions, and medium views of the vocal groups are timed to set the scene without pulling us away. Before we know it Elvis is loosening up during the guitar solo, then back behind the mic, the familiar sneering smile creeping onto his face as he shifts into effortless control for the “de de de” chorus and a characteristic big finish. Without resorting to the machine gun MTV style that denies you any time to relish any one composition, this version picks up the cutting pace just enough to dynamically capture each bit of action.
And, it can not be stressed enough, minus the detours of the original version. Even though, as a title leading into the show section indicates, songs were captured from six different shows (with Elvis in different outfits,) we nonetheless get the feeling of one continuous show set. “Heartbreak Hotel” no longer serves as a mere sound bed for a pretty but pointless montage of neon. And the show is no longer placed on hold to see a pair of fans get married by a preacher who wishes them love “of the romantic, tingly variety”(?)!
Some of Elvis’ banter may sound familiar yet different, as we see him run through some of the same jokey bits as in the original, with the distinguishing variations of another evening’s improvisations. It would be a stretch to say the schtick is any funnier than before, but it is fun to see Elvis exude his uniquely unshakable brand of cool as he stumbles good-naturedly through his fairly half-baked routines. Just as he resisted the onstage encouragement to explain his career when addressing the audience in the 1968 NBC “Comeback” TV Special, he seems reluctant still to draw too much attention from the real show with anything too consciously prepared. Elvis preferred to let the music speak for itself.
There are plenty other markedly improved highlights as well. The interplay between Elvis and vocal groups during “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin;” the effective, more sparing use of the snap zooms in and out during the climax of “Polk Salad Annie;” the more closely framed, bizarre yet courageous walk through the aisles of the largely hysterical audience; the dirtier, more frantic performance of “One Night;” an even more energetic “Suspicious Minds.”
When the final curtain falls over the playout of “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” a dazzling series of showroom wide shots, matched to a tight shot of a sweaty, victorious Elvis, make the viewer feel he/she’s seen a complete concert, not just chunks taken from various shows, as with the original. In achieving this, Elvis – That’s The Way It Is is better than the way it was, and can finally joins the ranks of the truly great concert films. The world’s greatest rock singer deserves nothing less.