If you don’t like concert films and don’t know much about Elvis, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is may be the perfect concert film for you. I say that because I fulfill both conditions, and still enjoyed this 1970 video of Elvis’s come back concert at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The film is earnest and serious about showing you what an Elvis concert is like, and though I might have enjoyed a real documentary about Elvis’s history and personal tragedies more, it’s hard to say that a piece of journalism like that is more real than this actual footage from his life, even if it is curated. This movie does four good things, one of them probably by accident:
- It provides a lot of glimpses of actual human Elvis, which is a rare thing for someone was born two years after the King died and who’s never gone out of their way to learn about Elvis. To an American of my age, even with only a cursory knowledge of his music and life, he’s an icon and symbol that’s pretty gosh darn close to a mythological figure, so seeing him giggle in rehearsal, make funny faces, and get really nervous before his concert is very strange and affecting. It’s kind of like if one of those half finished portraits of George Washington started talking about the price of gasoline- that’s how much of a symbolic, not-real figure Elvis is to me. This footage is the opposite of raw, Elvis very much knows he’s on camera, but he also manages to come across as being (mostly) without affect. When Elvis stresses about forgetting the words to one of the songs he will sing, I believe him. This movie makes the King more human, and that’s extra impressive because it also . . .2. Manages to convey Elvis’s extreme talent and power as a performer. Many of the “aw shucks, Elvis is just a guy” scenes take place in rehearsal and immediately prior to the concert’s beginning. That sense of his vulnerability leaves you wide open for his ass kicking performance once he gets going. His crazy gyrations, his casual ability to project that buttery voice, and the concert’s reliance on familiar Elvis classics (Love me Tender, Suspicious Minds) and covers of songs everyone loves (You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling) manage to suck you right heck in. The movie also repeatedly demonstrates his god-like power over his fans, especially when every woman in the hall runs up to the stage to get literally frenched by Elvis while he sings Love Me Tender. It’s kind of gross, but it doesn’t leave you any doubt about who the King is. Elvis’s rabid fandom is a major subject of this movie, and the message this Elvis-approved and I believe Elvis funded film manages to convey it that Elvis fans .
3. WERE HUGE NERDS. Trust me, I know my people, and the fans in this movie would be right at home in seminal fandom documentary Trekkies. There’s an effusive woman who almost goes into contortions trying to explain how she loves Elvis like a brother, there’s two fans showing off their Elvis photo collections, there’s a guy who lets the filmmaker know he’s gonna come after him if the movie isn’t pro-Elvis. There are couples who changed the date of their wedding to attend the concert. There’s even a fan convention in England where the crowd goes nuts over a tandem bicycle that Elvis used to ride. Just like in Trekkies, these fans’ sincere enthusiasm is infectious, and helps pique interest in Elvis during the concert scenes. “What do they see in him?” you ask yourself. “Am I nodding in time to the music?”4. The fourth pillar of enjoyment in this flick is the 1970s. When it came out it probably didn’t matter, but 46 years later, everything everyone wears, says and does in this movie is interesting because of how much things have changed. The clothes are amazing and silly, the stilted interviews with the suits planning the concert are hilarious, the strange montage of hotel kitchens cooking 1970s food is so dated it actually hurts. I go to Vegas for work every so often, and the shots of the city and the hotel it takes place in (now much changed) are also fun to scrutinize. Every man Elvis associates has sideburns exactly like his, and it’s great. If you are curious about Elvis, and want to dip your toe in the man’s life, this isn’t a bad way to do it. If you are an Elvis fan that for some reason has never seen this movie, I don’t know what you’d think– you should watch it and let us know.