A guide to the King onstage in the cinema
In 1969, Elvis Presley finally got off the movie treadmill and returned to live performance.
The incessant touring would eventually get to be a new kind of treadmill, but initially at least Presley roared back into live gigging like an animal finally let out of his cage.
There were no cameras rolling during his 1969 Las Vegas engagement, but they were there the following year, resulting in his first concert film, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is. Two years later came Elvis On Tour, documenting four April 1972 shows, recently reissued in a lavish box set that includes CDs of the concerts, tour rehearsals and the movie itself on Blu-ray. It’s the only Presley film to win an award, the Golden Globe for Best Documentary.
The cameras also captured him in all his “American Eagle” jumpsuited glory in Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii, the show celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. And though the King was fading by 1977, there was still time for another concert taping with the TV special Elvis In Concert. Presley’s national breakthrough came from his electrifying TV appearances in 1956; it was somehow fitting that his final turn on the national stage was in the same medium. Here’s an overview of those 1970s performances:
Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970)
Dir: Denis Sanders
The definitive Elvis concert film, with Presley at his physical peak and still actively engaged in the proceedings. The camera follows Presley as he prepares for his summer 1970 season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, from rehearsals up to what’s ostensibly opening night (in reality, only one of the live numbers is from the opening; most are drawn from three other shows during the run). He’s prone to goofing off for the cameras during rehearsals, but he’s a veritable dynamo on stage, particularly in propulsive numbers like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Suspicious Minds.”
But as in the other concert films, the viewer is kept at a distance. There’s little commentary from Presley, so you get no indication of what makes him tick; no insight on how he puts a show together, for example, or why he chooses some songs over others. To make up for this, the film’s original cut is interspersed with scenes that try to place Elvis The Phenomenon in context; the hotel employees charged with decorating the premises for the event, the showroom manager deciding where to seat the VIPs, the fans who gather at a British Elvis convention. A new edit put together in 2001 eliminated most of this type of footage; sequences of fans talking about how much their cat loved Elvis were deemed too embarrassing. But that misses the point; it’s Sander’s version that better captures the spirit of the era. Both edits were later made available on DVD.
VIDEO: Elvis: That’s The Way It Is official trailer
Elvis On Tour (1972)
Dir: Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel
Fresh from their work on Mad Dogs and Englishmen, about Joe Cocker’s 1970 U.S. tour, Adidge and Abel endeavored to penetrate the bubble around Presley. “I want to shoot the real you,” Abel told him in their first meeting. They almost succeeded. Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling persuaded Presley to do an interview which would’ve been used as voice-over narration, and captured him talking frankly about the failure of his movie career (“I cared so much I became physically ill … I didn’t have final approval on the script, which means that I couldn’t tell you, ‘This is not good for me’”). But aside from a few bland observations, most of it was cut. Again, it’s Elvis at a distance; as Peter Guralnick put it in his biography Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, “Abel and Adidge never really knew the man who was speaking to them, one mask was merely substituted for another.”
One can still read a kind of subtext in the film, the relentless pace of limo ride-dressing room-performance-limo ride conveying a life of claustrophobia, minimal privacy and even monotony, in the endless parade of civic officials to meet in each city. No longer the sleek jungle cat of his first Vegas seasons, Presley is pale and puffy, and though energetic, there’s a sense of going through the motions, as the show becomes more about spectacle; the increasingly extravagant jumpsuits and the flailing karate moves indicate a step toward style over substance. Nonetheless, “Bridge Over Trouble Water” is a standout performance, and Presley seems most at home singing gospel songs offstage with his backing group J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, and listening intently when Sumner and the Stamps perform “Sweet Sweet Spirit” by themselves in concert.
VIDEO: Elvis On Tour official trailer
Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii (1973)
Dir: Marty Pasetta
This television show has been heavily mythologized, including such wildly inflated claims that over a billion people watched it (more than had seen the first moon landing!). You can read the real story in this excellent article on the Elvis Australia website, which sorts out fact from fiction (putting the actual viewing figure around 200 million for example).
It’s nonetheless a notable performance. Since Presley’s manager, Tom Parker, refused to let him tour overseas, a satellite broadcast would allow Presley to be beamed around the world without having to cross a border himself. Presley rose to the challenge, losing weight, getting a burnished tan, and having his costume designer craft one of his most iconic jumpsuits. The overall effect is regal and imperial. But nine months after the April shows filmed for Elvis On Tour, the almost manic energy seen in both that film and That’s the Way It Is has gone. No more karate kicks; Presley seems satisfied to cruise along in second gear, somewhat passive in his onstage chat, and getting through his rock ‘n’ roll hits with dispatch. “He wanted to be respected for his voice, and rock ‘n’ roll didn’t do that for him,” says his bassist, Jerry Scheff. “He loved ‘Impossible Dream’ and all those songs where he could really get emotional in them and show off his range. He wanted to be respected as a vocalist, and I’m sure he thought he was too old to do the rock ‘n’ roll thing anymore.” Which is why the most impressive numbers are the big ballads: “What Now My Love,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “An American Trilogy.”
The show was broadcast live on January 14, 1973, to mostly Pacific Rim countries, then broadcast in other countries over the next few months. When broadcast in the U.S. in April, the odd decision was made to break up the show’s momentum by inserting four other numbers Presley recorded post-concert.
VIDEO: Elvis Presley performs “See See Rider” in Aloha From Hawaii
Elvis In Concert (1977)
Dir: Dwight Hemion
It’s unclear why Parker made a deal for this TV special, given the state of Presley’s health at the time. In one account, Parker claimed he deliberately asked for a high fee, assuming he’d be turned down, but when his price was met decided he had to go through with it. The show was filmed over two nights on Presley’s final tour in June 1977. He is overweight and seemingly dazed; when he speaks between songs, you wonder if he’s going to make it to the end of the sentence. As a result, the final program is padded out with plenty of fan interviews and some comments from Presley’s father, Vernon.
His performance of his rock ‘n’ roll hits is again perfunctory, enlivened by the ritual passing out of scarves to the faithful. But if you close your eyes and listen, there are moments when the power of his voice still comes through; on one of his beloved sacred songs, “How Great Thou Art,” as well as “Hurt,” which sounds like a cry from the depths of his soul. And knowing that he’ll be dead in two months makes the opening lines of “My Way” especially chilling: “And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”
Elvis In Concert was broadcast on October 3, 1977, with some additional remarks from an obviously distraught Vernon placed at the end. It’s never been officially released, though it can be found on the collector’s circuit. Some isolated clips have been officially released over the years; Presley’s fumbling his way through “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in the theatrical cut of This Is Elvis, “Unchained Melody” (not included in TV show) in the compilation video The Great Performances: Volume One. The latter song was also featured in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, with Austin Butler’s performance of the song then morphing into Presley’s own version in a spooky transformation.
VIDEO: Austin Butler as Elvis performing “Unchained Melody”