Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Elvis: That's The Way It Is - Special Edition (1970)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Elvis Presley, wearing a flashy new jumpsuit, has pre-show jitters. "If the songs don't go over," he quips, "we can do a medley of costumes." The songs go over big - thanks to a remastered picture and remixed Dolby Digital from restored elements - in this Special Edition of the legendary Las Vegas concert movie shot in summer 1970. Film archivist/restorer Rick Schmidlin (Greed, Touch of Evil) has recovered more incomparable music - over thirty minutes of rare performances - from studio vaults in this dazzling rejuvenation. Added footage includes a get-down rehearsal of Get Back. Plus Suspicious Minds, One Night and more from the Original Release now appear in different versions.

Director: Dennis Sanders
Cast: Elvis Presley
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 31 chapters; rated PG; 95 min.; $19.98; street date 3/6/01.
Supplements: Behind-The-Scenes Documentary "Patch It Up: The Restoration Of Elvis: That's The Way It Is"; Theatrical Trailer; Elvis Presley Careet Highlights & Director/Restorer Filmographies.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B+/D+

At one point during That’s the Way It Is, the musical legends of Elvis Presley and the Beatles cross paths. No, the Fabs don’t make an appearance in this concert documentary. Indeed, they no longer existed as a band when the movie was filmed in the summer of 1970. However, we do hear the King offer a brief rendition of “Get Back” during a rehearsal.

I found this combination interesting if just because it reminded me of the radically different regard with which the public seem to view these two seminal talents. On one hand, the Beatles are arguably more popular than ever. More than three decades after their break-up, they continue to sell millions of records, with 1 topping charts all over the world. Here’s a compilation of songs that many people already have owned for years and years, yet it outsells everything else in sight. One would think that since it’s been more than 30 years since we last heard truly new material from the Beatles, everyone should be sick of them by now, but nonetheless, they remain the biggest band of all-time.

On the other hand, Elvis has degenerated into something of a punch line. His musical legacy has faded into semi-obscurity, and we rarely hear about him other than as the subject of gags. Geez, a recent movie - 3000 Miles to Graceland - apparently used the stereotypical image of the King as a theme! It appears that when most people think of Elvis, they conjure an image of a paunchy, ornately-garbed hick with huge sideburns.

Although I’ve never been a big Elvis fan, I hate that this is how he’s remembered. The guy’s been subjected to a slew of unfair criticisms over the years, many of them related to racial issues. As mentioned in Public Enemy’s 1989 tune “Fight the Power”, many people mistakenly believe Elvis was racist, and there’s also come to be popular acceptance of the notion that he was just a talentless tool of the record company bigwigs. Those money-men allegedly saw that black artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry were starting to attract white audiences and they promoted Elvis as an antidote; the theory goes that Presley just stole from others to take this ready-made white fan base.

Yeah, that’s what happened - and Titanic made $1.8 billion worldwide because the same seven 13-year-old girls saw it over and over again. While the record industry unquestionably favored a “white knight” to become the star of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis wasn’t the no-trick pony. Folks like Pat Boone corrupted the rawness of the music and homogenized the sound for the masses; Elvis just did what he did, and the result was gold. Did he popularize some songs written by blacks? Sure. He also popularized a lot of songs written by whites. Despite whatever the record companies may have wanted, Elvis himself had no racial agenda, and for anyone to deny his talent is just absurd.

Yet Presley’s singing and performing abilities have receded to the background over the last few decades as he’s become a cartoon to the public. With a new version of the 1970 concert documentary, 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 lame Hollywood production after another, Presley attempted to reclaim his crown with a 1968 “comeback” TV special and album.

It worked. I’ve never seen the show, but by all accounts, 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. This month-long gig was followed with a similar period the following year, and soon after that ended, Presley embarked on a proper US tour.

In the 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 by then. 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” - featured guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, keyboard player Glen Hardin and drummer Ron Tutt, all excellent performers who still work together and 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 distinctly 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 vividly 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” seems bothersome.

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 seemed insanely 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 are very interesting looks behind the scenes. The more time I spend with the TCBs, the better, so this opening half and 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 El launches a hot version of “One Night”, it looks like the show might actually become something worth watching. However, he immediately ruins 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; to hear an excellent version of “Can’t Help Falling…”, check out U2’s spare and stark edition that appears at the end of their Zoo TV - Live From Sydney video.

I also found Elvis to be in fairly 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 harm the performance 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. I’m not enough of an Elvis expert to state that other videos better demonstrate his talents, but I can’t believe that it truly shows him at his peak. I plan to check out the 1968 “comeback” special and compare the two, as I expect the earlier performance will probably show a higher caliber of work from the King.

Note that this special edition of That’s the Way It Is apparently provides a very different film experience than what appeared in the original theatrical version of the movie. I never saw the latter, but from what I’ve learned, this cut removes a lot of talking heads and fan-related fluff and adds more performance. Both movies last about the same length.

The DVD:

That’s the Way It Is appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it occasionally showed its age, for the most part the picture looked absolutely wonderful, with a vivid quality that belied its maturity.

Sharpness usually seemed crisp and well-defined. A few shots came across as mildly soft and fuzzy, but these were extremely rare. The vast majority of the film appeared detailed and distinct. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and print flaws seemed to be almost miraculously absent. I detected a few speckles and a little grain, but otherwise the image appeared wonderfully clean and fresh - you’d never guess this film was shot more than three decades ago.

Colors generally seemed exceedingly bright and vivid. We were treated to some excellent hues in a variety of situations, but it was El’s many semi-psychedelic shirts provided the best examples of the DVD’s terrific color reproduction. During concerts, lighting and other hues seemed consistently bold and accurate. Some parts of That’s the Way It Is went for subdued hues as a stylistic choice, but when the colors were allowed to shine, they definitely did.

Black levels also looked deep and rich, and contrast was solid; Elvis’ white jumpsuits appeared pure and clean. Shadow detail seemed appropriately heavy but never excessively thick, a factor that was especially important during the concert sequences. Live shows can be very difficult to reproduce on film, but I found Elvis’ performances to come across as clear and vivid in this very attractive film.

Also quite good was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of That’s the Way It Is. For the most part, the soundfield stayed strongly oriented toward the forward channels. As a whole, the audio offered nice stereo separation in the concert sequences, with instruments clearly and specifically located within the forward spectrum. Surround usage seemed mild. Some crowd noise appeared in the rear channels, and I also heard very occasional instrumentation from the back speakers.

The localization seemed a little awkward during some of the rehearsal sequences. Instruments and vocals appeared rigidly stuck in one side or the other of the front soundfield, and they didn’t blend especially well. However, the sound mainly just provided clear, smooth stereo imaging, and that worked well for the project.

Audio quality seemed very good. During some of the rehearsal bits, things could sound slightly rough, but those concerns were minor, and when we entered the true concert segments, the audio appeared very clean and professional. Elvis’ vocals were rich and distinct, and the various instruments came across as natural and accurate. I thought that the track could have provided more substantial bass; I heard modest low end throughout the film but these elements seemed a little too modest. Nonetheless, the audio for That’s the Way It Is provided generally bright and vivid music, and as a result, it presented a very listenable and enjoyable auditory experience.

One disappointment about the presentation relates to the English subtitles. These appear only for spoken material and we don’t get song lyrics. That makes no sense to me, as it seems logical to give us subtitles for the lyrics. Ironically, this omission would bother me less if the DVD included no subtitles at all, but since the producers provided some text, why didn’t they go all the way?

That’s the Way It Is includes a few minor supplements. We find a minor documentary called Patch It Up: the Restoration of Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. While this nine-minute and 10-second program does offer a few details about the creation of the special edition of the movie, for the most part it simply gives us a modest retrospective. Although it wasn’t a great piece, it was fun to hear from musicians like James Burton and Ron Tutt, all of whom give us their reflections upon their experiences. It’s a superficial piece, but I enjoyed these snippets nonetheless.

Lastly, we get a few DVD basics to round out the package. Cast and Crew provides biographies for Elvis and restoration producer Rick Schmidlin, while Behind the Scenes and Elvis and His Films also give us some brief but interesting text about those areas. In addition, we discover the theatrical trailer for That’s the Way It Is; note that this ad is for the original film, not for the special edition.

Although his legacy has lost some luster over the years, Elvis Presley remains one of the all-time great rock stars, and he continues to demand respect for what he did. Unfortunately, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is features Elvis as he began his decline. Though the 1970 concert performance occasionally catches fire, too much of it resides in the category of campy blandness. The DVD offers splendid picture and solid sound but lacks substantial extras. Elvis fans will definitely enjoy the piece, but those who are less familiar with his work may want to start out with something else, as That’s the Way It Is doesn’t present the King in the best light.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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