Elvis: That's the Way It Is (Blu-ray Review)18 Aug, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Not rated. (Original version rated ‘PG’)
When rating history’s top cinematic revampings, facelifts, director’s cuts or whatevers motivated by potential enticements of the home market, I’d almost put producer Rick Schmidlin’s fresh take on this once underperforming concert film with most successful second cracks I’ve seen: Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil as released by Criterion and Barry Levinson’s fresh take with The Natural, which Sony beyond-stupidly didn’t release as the Blu-ray version. I know at least a little of what I speak because I can claim to have seen Elvis: That’s the Way It Is on the way home from work on its opening night in New York — with a small handful of others in an architecturally humble and (worse) essentially empty venue in the upper West Side 1960s.
Elvis recordings were selling again in the sustained glow of his 1968 quickly termed “Comeback Special,” and no one will ever be able to put him down for the still blistering International Hotel Vegas performances captured here (how many times did Cary Grant ever come to hear you sing?). But in terms of wave-making cinema at the time of Way’s Nov 1970 opening, let’s remember that May’s Woodstock had been a smash and was on its way to winning an Oscar, and the cooler guys I was with in grad school (all two of them) were totally jazzed by the imminent release of the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, which was set to arrive in early December. Thanks to the crummy sound in the theater and the overabundance of fan interviews that preceded the musical main event, about the only thing that seemed cutting edge about the picture was the its employment of Lucien Ballard as cinematographer, a screen credit that fried my brain at the time. What must have it been like to go from lensing The Wild Bunch in Mexico with Sam Peckinpah and his tequila buddies to visually sculpting rock-and-roll royalty in a neon setting? Of course, when I read, much later, about Elvis shooting out a TV screen because Robert Goulet’s image happened to be on it, it occurred to me that Ballard might have been right at home.
This documentary, along with 1972’s now mellow Elvis on Tour, seemed like missed opportunities for many years because they were, after all, the legend’s last two screen appearances after Charro! and Change of Habit failed to ignite many pop-cultural blazes. But in 2001, with a Turner Classic Movies showing as at least a partial impetus, original director Denis Sanders’ cut underwent a major overhaul, even though the running times of the two versions are fairly close (the recut version is actually shorter). Gone were a lot of the fan interviews and even some of the songs (though as with Warner’s 2007 standard-DVD version of this release, both edits are included here, so you get full-octane King and, if you insist, his paying customer disciples, who include not just Cary but Sammy Davis Jr., the ever bronzed George Hamilton and Elvis’s G.I. Blues co-star Juliet Prowse, whose last name Dean Martin used to pronounce in maybe three syllables, as in “Proooooooowwwwwwwwse”). Added were more songs and a lot of table-setting rehearsal footage, which a) shows off Elvis’s tendency to clown; while b) making it clear just who was in control of the proceedings.
The result is pretty electric, even beyond James Burton’s backup electric guitar (I had friends, even at the time in the Boomer ’50s, who’d watch "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" solely to see Burton providing the audio punch to Ricky Nelson’s sullen nostril-flarings). Some performers — in particular, Ricky, matter of fact — got later in trouble with their fans during their twilight trying to cover more contemporary songs. Yet Elvis made “Polk Salad Annie” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” fully his own even if my favorite version of the latter will likely always be Sen. Sam Ervin’s on that near-singular LP he waxed for Columbia amid his Watergate glory (the one where “water” comes out as Mississippi-flavored “wal-tuh”). I’m not at all certain what the segregationist senator and the Sweet Inspirations could have done with Elvis concert staple “Patch It Up” — but it’s a high point here, and you’d better — to quote a phrase that came along later — pump up the volume if your system can showcase the once new-and-improved concert soundtrack that was constructed for the original reissue.