By the late ’60s, rock legend Elvis Presley’s long run as a movie star seemed like it was over, as evidenced by the failure of Change of Habit (1969), a musical comedy the King made for Universal. Rather than accepting defeat, however, Presley’s home studio, MGM, tacked in a new direction by commissioning a documentary about the singer’s return to live performance after a seven-year hiatus. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Denis Sanders, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is captures the King at the beginning of his self-parody period, introducing such tropes as the sequined jump suit, the exuberant karate moves, and the cheesy onstage patter (“Thank you, thankyouverymuch”). Yet for every example of excess—bloated arrangements, syrupy ballads—there’s something redeeming, like a flash of Presley’s thunderous vocal power every now and then. Therefore, this record of the King’s blockbuster residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas is consistently compelling.
In the best sequence (Presley rehearsing with his band), the singer is loose and playful, digging into killer grooves like a version of “Little Sister” that segues into a cover of the Beatles’ “Get Back.” And while there’s plenty of bad-Elvis sludge in That’s the Way It Is—Presley does a half-assed version of “Love Me Tender” as he trolls the lip of the stage and kisses female audience members—the film is a fascinating artifact. This is especially true of the re-edited version that premiered on Turner Classic Movies in 2000. Sanders’ original cut was derided for including pointless secondary material, such as interviews with fans and hotel workers. The 2000 version excludes the superfluous material, features a slightly different song list, and offers stronger momentum during the second and third acts, which simulate one full concert even though footage was cobbled together from six different evenings. Both cuts of That’s the Way It Is benefit from crisp, dramatic concert photography by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who shot The Wild Bunch (1969) and other classics.
After That’s the Way It Is did well, MGM commissioned a second concert documentary two years later. Elvis on Tour records Presley’s first concert trek in a decade. Although the movie drags at times—partially because Presley’s starting to look bored, heavy, and silly onstage, and partially because the filmmakers include drab offstage bits like shots of roadies moving cases around empty amphitheaters—Elvis on Tour has incredible moments. For instance, the movie shows Presley singing his last significant single, “Burning Love,” a song so new he reads lyrics off a sheet of paper. It’s striking to see an artist crafting a fresh hit almost 20 years after his first Number One song. Elvis on Tour also features a terrific gospel-music jam session between Elvis and his backup singers. This sequence lets viewers watch Presley enjoy his talent in a (mostly) private way. Elvis on Tour lacks the dramatic build of That’s the Way It Is, particularly since Presley’s climactic cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” appears too early, but it’s worth watching all the way through just to hear these immortal words: “Elvis has left the building.” Elvis on Tour was the last film of Presley’s career, and though he enjoyed one more showbiz triumph afterward—the famous TV concert Aloha from Hawaii (1973)—health problems took the King’s life in 1977.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is: GROOVY
Elvis on Tour: FUNKY