Elvis: That's The Way It Is
Film: Elvis - That's the way it is
Review by: Peter Thompson
Elvis Presley died in 1977 at the age of 42. But he achieved a rare immortality as the biggest popular recording star of all time. He's commemorated in the restored version of the 1970 concert film Elvis: That's The Way It Is which begins its run around Australia this week.
It's sad but true that the enduring images of Elvis Presley are of the bloated, pathetic figure he became towards the end of his life. On top of that, his countless imitators and detractors have made him something of a joke. So it's nothing short of a revelation to see him as he was just seven years before his death. By 1969, his film career had run out of steam but he had made a triumphant comeback as a recording artist and concert performer. Elvis: That's The Way It Is captures him as his fans no doubt want to remember him: looking good and apparently on top of the world.
Presented without narration, the story begins with Elvis arriving at the MGM Studios in Culver City in 1970 to begin rehearsals with his band. If the stakes are high, the pressure certainly doesn't show. It's good ol' boys loosening up and goofing off and very comfortable in the presence of the cameras.
Elvis: That's The Way It Is was successfully released 30 years ago but it's been picked up in the wave of restorations of recent times. This new version has been completely re-edited from the original material which producer Rick Schmidlin's search uncovered.
Rick Schmidlin: "We had people going down two miles below the earth in Kansas looking for unmarked cans that possibly contained the footage and we found things! We found the original 16-track masters. So we were able to go into the studio and digitally re-mix this from the 16 tracks so that you can now hear things that you never heard before and see separations of the music that you have never seen before."
Rehearsals continue as they move to Las Vegas. They're joined by back-up vocalists who work at first with recordings and then live with the band. Among them are base player Jerry Scheff, drummer Ronnie Tutt and Elvis' lead guitarist, James Burton. All have had long and successful careers since these heady times. In the film, Burton will feature in several solos on stage and, 30 years on, he recalls what it was like working with Elvis.
James Burton: "We had great eye contact on stage and he'd watch me a lot and I never took my eyes off him because you never knew what was going to happen next so you had to pretty much keep your eye on him at all times."
Jerry Scheff: "We rehearsed probably 200 songs with him. When we played then with him, it wasn't like a rehearsal, it was more like we were just having fun; it was more like jamming. But Elvis was always in charge. There was nobody else in charge but him."
Rick Schmidlin has reshaped the original film to give greater emphasis to the music and to the interaction of Elvis with the people around him, including his entourage of assistants and hangers-on, including Joe Esposito.
Joe Esposito: "There was a team. There wasn't just Elvis and his band. If he wanted to change something, do whatever he wanted to do, he did it. But the band ? they were great ? they could do anything he wanted and Elvis loved that and that's why he got along so great with them."
Ronnie Tutt: "You forget some of the silliness that's in it. Like he's just sitting there and the mike starts going over and he's looking at it. And you know, I know what he's thinking, but it's just the craziness at the time. He wouldn't allow the seriousness of, as you say, a paying crowd to keep him from getting tickled or getting crazy about something. He didn't care in that way."
The point that many commentators and fellow musicians make about Presley is that he broke new ground in countless ways. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and countless others acknowledge their debt to him. Presley imitated nobody. One of the most highly charged scenes in the film is his spontaneous walk through the crowd. Every woman wants to kiss him, it seems, and the men shake him respectfully by the hand.
Rick Schmidlin: "I think it's going to shock people when they see how good he looked. When he put on his white stage suits in 1970 he had a 32-inch waist and [he was] in top physical shape, probably the [best] physical shape of his life."
Jerry Scheff: "Elvis was a true musician and a true vocalist and when he sang, I really believe the lyrics went through his mind and through his heart and came out his mouth."
Elvis fans ? and there's still legions ? will need no encouragement to revisit their hero's finest hour. For those who've never cared about Presley or just don't know what all the fuss was about, Elvis: That's The Way It Is could be the most surprising film you'll ever see. With brilliantly restored image and sound, it has a freshness that is genuinely amazing. It may open doors for you to the history of recent popular culture that nothing else can
? May 20, 2001
Review of TTWII SE DVD