Elvis on Tour

(Robert Abel, Pierre Adidge, USA, 1972): In Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick recalls how the King, freshly emboldened by the experience of making his ’68 TV special, summons master manager and manipulator Colonel Tom Parker to his presence. “‘Tell the Colonel I want to talk to him,'” a witness to the event recalls Presley saying. “The Colonel came in, and (Elvis) was just high from the experience, and he said ‘I want to tour again, I want to go out and work with a live audience.'” And so it was: two years later, as documented in the 1970 documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, Presley charged onto the stage of the Hotel International in Vegas and never really left. By the time Elvis on Tour was released two years later, the performer had honed one of the most formidable live touring acts in living memory, and had taken the Vegas show on the American road. Using then-voguish split screen to divide the spectacle into competing stimuli, and structuring the movie into revolving cycles of travel, backstage business and performance, the movie now stands as another testimony retracting one of the most persistently tenacious of anti-Elvis myths, i.e., that the King’s post-Vegas era was a long, sad, barbiturate-propped slide into oblivion, the protracted final act of a pop-mythic tragedy about a hillbilly boy genius who got too famous too soon and died for his industry’s sins. Not that that’s entirely wrong, of course, but not nearly as wrong as the notion that Presley had nothing to contribute but the playing out of the tragedy in his final decade. What we see in this movie, even with its sometimes wince-worthy instances of Elvis’s goofball stage patter, thick wall of insulating good ‘ole boy beefcake security, and the irredeemably dumb karate moves, is an almost incomparably great performer in his element backed by an incomparably great band. Before an audience, Elvis may not have retrieved his mojo enough to save himself from the pills — and one can already see the fatigue and puffiness that was nowhere evident in That’s the Way It Is — but he did get it back enough to create that space where he was able to do what almost nobody could do with the same intensity, commitment and conviction: get inside a song and get a song inside himself, so that even such unlikely MOR staples as Bridge Over Troubled Water and (for God’s sake) Never Been to Spain, sound like pop arias pipelined from somewhere just south of paradise. As I said, the band is hot enough to qualify as one of it’s eras unqualified best, and Elvis is comfortable enough with them to suggest an extension of his own nervous system. I love the moment where he stops the show in order to listen to his gospel quartet sing an a cappella spiritual and seems to melt into what he’s hearing. If all the stuff focusing on the relentless hustling of the King in and out of the building, kibitzing with the guys in the back of limos, and trudging up and down the Lisa Marie‘s boarding ramp suggests a punishingly repetitive and hermetic existence, it only makes what transpires on stage that much more powerful and genuine: it would seem the man’s only freedom and release in the final decade was found on stage, and even then only up to a point. But that point, it must and needs be said, was somewhere near a state of grace. (Warner Home Video)