Written by Fantasma el Rey
Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (Two-Disc Special Edition) is a perfect showcase of the way it was when Elvis’ Las Vegas show was fresh and new. This new edition includes two versions of the documentary, the original version and the 2001 release that was re-cut and edited to show more concert footage. Filmed during the King’s first major run at the International Hotel both DVDs capture the power and excitement Elvis possessed in two almost completely different films. What remains the same is the command that Elvis has over his loving audience.
Let’s start with disc two, the documentary as it was originally released in 1970. This version opens with Elvis at rehearsals with the core members of his band, which includes James Burton (guitar), Jerry Scheff (bass) and Ronnie Tutt (drums). We get to see the guys as they practice the songs for the upcoming Vegas run for the very first time. It’s good to see them having fun and goofing around, especially Elvis. We can see he is in charge and the leader of his band. He’s shown making changes, directing and pointing out where people need to be as a song starts.
The scene then moves to Vegas and the vocal groups learning their parts. The Sweet Inspirations (female) and The Imperials Quartet (male) are later joined by Elvis and the band to get it all down and jam a little. There is a quiet moment with Elvis and the girls, where you get a feel for some of his priorities as far as family is concerned. He is playful here, showing his range and playing with the groups to see what they know and what they can do. He is quite fond of his high-pitched Tiny Tim-like vocals and will even use it many times on stage.
From the practice hall we move to the main stage for rehearsals the day before the big event. More fun and laughter ensue this time members of the Memphis mafia are on the loose and adding to the humor. But it is the show itself that takes the documentary over the top.
Elvis is in top form and still in the best shape of his life, at this time it is said that the man had a 32-inch waist. WOW!! He was a six-foot, Karate-trained, lean, mean entertainment machine primed to deliver the best of shows of his career. As the music fills the air, Elvis’ presence fills the screen. He’s calm and appears a bit nervous because most of the night’s numbers are new and he is a bit unsure of how the crowd will respond. Yet as always the fans adore him and the songs go over well, eliminating any questions the king might have had. From start to finish Elvis is cracking jokes, mixing with fans and band members, giving off an overall good time vibe. Elvis paints the picture of an easygoing guy who’s having a ball performing and doing what he loves and does best.
With the original version we really don’t get enough of Elvis. During filming, director Denis Sanders became fascinated with the fan element of Elvis’ career and put much of the focus on them and other irrelevant situations. The fan interviews aren’t all bad; we get to hear from people of all ages and races give their opinion of why big E is such a positive force in the world. Older folks like the fact that he’s a Christian man, while men see him as the essence of quiet cool from look to attitude. People admire the fact that a Southern white boy was strong enough to go head-on and sing back-porch country and blues tunes inspired by poor African Americans. Children are drawn to him as well for reasons I have yet to figure out. Then there are women, young and old, who just love him from head to toe and think that he is the very definition of sexy masculinity.
Many interviews are interesting, such as the editor of Tiger Beat telling of her excitement over Elvis and random fans waxing poetic about how rock ‘n’ roll is nothing without him. We even get to go across the pond to England and then Germany for a European fan fest, where we get to see Elvis’ tandem bike raffled off for charity. The best part here is the Elvis impersonators. Some are good look-a-likes and others are horrid. Some bands are simply there to play rock ‘n’ roll inspired by the King and other rockabilly legends.
Disc one is the redone version of this same Vegas run but the focus has been put back on Elvis. All the fan interviews and “talking heads” have been removed and replaced with more Elvis footage. The basic chain of events is the same but Special Edition producer Rick Schmidlin looked all over the Warner Brothers vaults for every frame of footage that he could find. Armed with this new material, he put together “The ultimate Elvis performance.” We get to see more of the personal side of Elvis, being himself and interacting with people not in his everyday entourage.
Many good tunes and footage where left out of the 1970 release and are now being seen for the first time. A few of the songs in the 2001 release are different versions from the original, as the overall footage is from six separate shows. Songs from the early days, “Mystery Train,” “All Shook Up,” “Hound Dog,” and “Blue Suede Shoes” are reworked with fury and mixed with new tunes like “Suspicious Minds,” “ I Just Can’t Help Believing,” and “Polk Salad Annie.”
The new tunes reflect the recent R&B sounds of Memphis with soaring horns and heavy, funky bass. “Patch It Up” is a new song that sends the crowd and Elvis into a frenzy. The people are dancing and grooving right along with their king. Elvis’ dancing isn’t all choreographed, like the hyper gyrations of today’s pop idols; his moves have feeling and are driven by the connection with the song he is singing. It’s awesome to see him playing with the vocal groups during a song and then spin back into place as the bridge closes out.
What makes the new version better is the fact that Elvis is center of attention and that’s who we want to see and hear. Maybe back in ‘70s Sanders’ idea of the fans worked because Elvis still walked among us and being able to see him live wasn’t wishful thinking. For today’s fan Elvis is the attraction not what the Hotel staff was doing to prepare or the stress on the promoter. Don’t get me wrong these things interest me too, but to see Elvis at the top of his game is something that simply stirs my soul.
Much of the material on these DVDs can be found on the Elvis: Viva Las Vegas CD that was recently released and his original albums On Stage and the three-disc edition of the soundtrack to the film, That’s The Way It Is.