Elvis Presley was a legend in his own time, having popularized and transformed black rhythm and blues, gospel and bluegrass into what we now call rock and roll. Presley had help on his style of music, of course, from wide-ranging musicians that preceded him such as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Big Mama Thornton, Lloyd Price, Chuck Berry, Junior Parker, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Bill Monroe. But it was Presley’s peculiar combination of sex appeal, sultry good looks and a voice that could make the Angels sing that really sent him over from being just another rockabilly crooner into the mythical Land of Pop Gods inhabited by the likes of the aforementioned Sinatra and folks such as Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Make no mistake about it, this former truck driver from Memphis by way of Tupelo breathed purified air during his reign as “the King of rock and roll.”
Per our scooperific pals over at the esteemed news outlet Variety, we’ve received word that a classic bit of Elvis ephemera – the 1970 concert documentary, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is – will be returning to select movie theaters later this year just in time for its fiftieth anniversary courtesy of Trafalgar Releasing.
When Elvis: That’s the Way It Is was originally dropped into theaters back in ’70 the documentary as we know it today was a different sort of creature altogether. In 2020 most of the mystique and mystery of the lives of the pop stars, film actors, politicians and everything in between has largely been diminished by a deluge of behind the scenes looks at the inner machinations of some of our most fascinating public figures. Heck, entire channels strictly devoted to showcasing documentaries exist in abundance now. But back in 1970 we were still a long way out from the devout navel gazing and star worshipping that we so commonly practice in our own day and age (I’m extremely guilty of having a sweet tooth for such things myself, I confess). This is not an admonishment, simply a statement of fact.
Which is what made this at the time unprecedented look at a man who not only cranked out some true gems music-wise, but who also greatly influenced our own culture by the very way he held and conducted himself such a true revelation. Every self-respecting teenage boy in 1950s America wanted to be Elvis Presley (most of them quietly gave up after a short time and resigned themselves to being someone far more accessible to mere mortals, rock and roll legend Buddy Holly) and every teenage girl in America wanted to date Elvis the Pelvis. He was raw and unadorned right out of the gates and he promised post-World War Two Baby Boomers Freedom, Rebellion and Sex. Not necessarily in that order.
By the time the Denis Sanders directed, MGM distributed Elvis: That’s the Way It Is crashed onto the silver screen, however, America and Elvis Presley had undergone a lot of changes. Gone was the last name of “Presley”, to be replaced by the one word passcode – “ELVIS.” Also M.I.A. were the defiant and neatly groomed sideburns, the peg-legged slacks and the gold lame jackets topped off with obligatory blue suede shoes. Ladies and gents, say hello to the 1970 Elvis: Brightly adorned jumpsuits and capes (meant to pay homage to the King’s favorite comic book character, Captain Marvel Jr.), slightly shaggy hair and a penchant for strictly playing Las Vegas as much as was possible were all the new norms. The music had changed, too: Gone was that fantastic and electric rockabilly sound from his earliest Sun Records days. Elvis in 1970 was more country tinged and his Gospel roots were much more in evidence than ever before. Some of these new accoutrements were welcome and a definite upgrade from the earlier model of Elvis; some were not. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is captured all of this in a sort of breathless way with the bulk of the concert footage being shot at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Doubtlessly, part of that breathlessness sprang from a case of nerves on the part of Presley: This footage captured his first tour in ten years and, like an ageing prize-fighter, Presley wearily yet gracefully entered the arena once again, blissfully unaware of the quick decline that awaited him just around the corner a few years later. Here, caught and memorialized for future generations to behold, is a gently waking giant, rediscovering his gift and nervously having a fun time doing it. It’s a tribute to one of the most complex and gifted talents to ever hold forth on a stage and, for that reason alone, this rerelease is also a rediscovery and a reassessment of not ELVIS, but of Elvis Presley, onetime resident of Tupelo, Mississippi who made good.