Elvis: That’s the Way It Is

(Denis Sanders, USA, 1970/2001): It might say something about the formidable influence of Colonel Tom Parker that he finally got his wish concerning this 1970 Elvis-in-Vegas doc thirty years after it was first released. As accounts have it, when Elvis: That’s the Way It Is was first shown to him by director Denis Sanders back in the day, Elvis’s notorious micro-manager was furious: he hated all the stuff in the movie that focused on Elvis’s fans declaring their loyalty to the king, was horrified at all the scenes exposing the extent of the promotional machinery behind the singer’s return to live after eight years blowing Hollywood bubbles, and could not for the life of him understand why the entire movie — which only came about because the Colonel’s dream of a globally-broadcast closed-circuit live show was not yet technologically feasible — did’t focus on the only thing that really mattered: Elvis here and now. Then, in 2001, that dream came true: under the auspices of archivist Rick Schmidlin, a ‘Special Edition’ of Sanders’ movie was released on DVD, and it was pretty much all Elvis all the time: the fan interviews and backstage hustling was completely excised, more interview and live footage was restored, and That’s the Way It Is became, for all intents and purposes, a completely different movie. Not better, but substantially altered experience. You can finally see both on the 2014 blu-ray Special Edition and, when it comes to studying both the vicissitudes of pop cultural mythology and the manufacture of documentary meaning, it’s the only way to go. With his head clearly full of Gimme ShelterWoodstock and other countercultural verité, Sanders apparently set out to make a movie that depicted not only Presley’s storming of the Vegas stage, but his occupation of the hearts, minds and wallets of his fans. To this end, Sanders — whose background lay in politically engaged doc and drama — seems to have spent a lot of time tracking down some of the geekiest, homeliest and most sorry-looking Elvis fans he could, isolating them in the bedrooms, encouraging them to speak earnestly and frankly about what Elvis means to them, and generally creating the impression that Elvis fandom was a clear case of preying on the weak and lonely, a practice that was obviously facilitated by the movie’s other (subsequently excised) strain of exposé, the marketing of the Elvis industry. Funny thing was, as soon as the movie turned its camera on Presley himself, still looking Comeback Special lean and gorgeous, and clearly as motivated to get back out there and knock ’em sideways as he ever was and ever would be, the built-in auto-critique reversed itself: so electrifying, committed and charismatic is Elvis on stage in Vegas, the very idea of manipulated fandom — let alone delusional fandom — falls away like, well, Kentucky rain. By seeing the performer in such a clearly glorious state of command, before the subsequent bombast, posturing and weight gain had set in, delighted by his amazing new band and digging his public as much as it digs him, everything the fans say and the machine supports is completely validated. Right here, right now, this guy is The King. But this was obviously a subtlety Colonel Parker — who had clearly not watched anything else Sanders had ever made — wasn’t susceptible to, and all he saw was a movie with not enough Elvis, too much business reporting, and a few too many lonelyhearts fans sitting on their beds next to their cats. So That’s the Way It Is wasn’t the way it was supposed to be — at least in Tom Parker’s mind — until 2001, when Schmidlin came along and, three years after the Colonel’s death, ‘restored’ Sanders movie to what the old man had always wanted it to be: an Elvis concert movie with no distractions, a exercise in myth-making and product marketing that never let the strings and levers show, that flattered the fans purely by reinforcing the legitimacy their devotion: here’s Elvis at possibly the greatest moment of his performance career since leaving the Army — or at least since the ’68 TV special — a force and a talent beyond questioning and calculation, a so-called legendary performer deserving of every syllable. So the restoration is glorious as far as that goes, but what it lacks is exactly what made the original version of the movie so inadvertently fascinating, which is the juxtaposition of the attempt at undermining Elvis’s legend with its defeat in face of the man in performance himself. In the 1970 cut, Elvis himself crushes all doubts by simply being as vital and good as even the most desperate fans say he is, and nothing the movie can throw at him can contradict that fact. In the 2001 version, what we get is pure Elvis in all senses and, while that’s hardly insignificant given the King at this key juncture of his frustrating, contentious and ultimately sad career, it leaves something crucial out of the equation: a guy not only living up to his legend but earning it. (Warner Home Video)