A brief opening text introduction sets the stage - Elvis, after hitting Hollywood and churning out a whole lot of movies, felt the need to get back in front of a live audience. Records sales were slowly dwindling and this seemed like a good way to make a return to form. As such, he traveled to Vegas where he did two shows a night for four weeks at the International Hotel. Elvis: That's The Way It Is documents Elvis' arrival at his rehearsal space, his practice session with his band and his backing singers, and most importantly, his live show (which was cut together from six separate shows). The film played theatrically in 1970, though superfluous footage of fans stole the spotlight from Elvis himself a few too many times. In 2001 the film was recut using footage long thought lost in order to put emphasis on Elvis himself and to paint a more accurate picture of what his live shows from that era were actually like. The results are amazing.
There's really not much of a story here. The film begins with Elvis' arrival at his MGM rehearsal area, set up inside a large soundstage. From there he works on a few numbers with his band, almost conducting them at times. We get a chance to see him very much at ease, goofing off with men who are just as much his friends as they are his co-workers and he seems to be having a genuinely enjoyable time. His sense of humor shines through here, and it's also obvious when he's trying out the two groups of backing vocalists who would play with him during this run in Las Vegas - The Sweet Inspirations (an all female gospel group - look for Whitney Houston's mother in there!) and The Imperials (an all male backing group made up of a bunch of guys who all kind of look like Elvis!).
From there, it's show time. Before the big event Elvis jokes around with his band members, commenting on his many costumes and getting ready to perform. Once he's in front of the crowd, it soon becomes obvious that this is a man at the top of his game. He was obviously in fantastic shape here (in the documentary they point out that he still had a thirty-two inch waistline when this movie was shot) and he's full of energy and enthusiasm. He sounds great, his voice is in excellent shape, and he completely controls the audience and he simply exudes cool.
He plays a lot of favorites here - songs like Heartbreak Hotel, The Wonder Of You, I Can't Help Falling In Love, Suspicious Minds and plenty more and he does a few covers as well, like The Beatles' Get Back and Simon And Garfunkle's Bridge Over Troubled Water. Interestingly enough, he also does a few numbers from what was, at the time, his more recent studio output - Just Pretend and Patch It Up being good examples. The highlight of the set is when he performs Love Me Tender. Women run up to the stage for a kiss, he obliges, and it begins to happen with such frequency that he can no longer sing. It's here we see Elvis get off stage and walk through the crowd, shaking hands and kissing ladies, and it's here that we can tell just how much he loved his audience. It's maybe a little hokey in hindsight, but it's obvious that at this point in his career the man loved performing.
Elvis pulls it all off with style, flamboyance and a sense of humor. He talks about his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, intentionally changes lyrics to a few songs and plays up to the crowd. The band is tight and they're completely in synch and the backing singers (save for one exception where Elvis intentionally tries to scare one of the ladies) are completely on. While the performance was cut together from a few different shows, which means that there were likely some weaker moments that we don't see, the end result is an insanely energetic performance from a man who completely deserves his title of The King. Before substance abuse and personal problems took him down, Elvis Presley was a consummate performer and one of the great vocalists in the history of pop music and Elvis: That's The Way It Is stands as proof.
Elvis: That's The Way It Is looks great in this 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There is some grain here and there but print damage has been almost completely eliminated and the color reproduction looks fantastic. Attentive viewers might notice some mpeg compression artifacts behind Elvis while he's on stage in a few spots but aside from that there aren't any problems with digital transfer related issues. Edge enhancement is held in place and aliasing is never overly problematic even if a bit of minor shimmer does pop up from time to time. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and fine detail remains strong in both the foreground and the background of the picture.
The audio for the 2001 version of Elvis: That's The Way It Is is handled by way of a very lively English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track. Optional subtitles are available in English and French. While some of the banter between Elvis and his band members is a little muffled during the practice and rehearsal session, once the movie takes us to Vegas for the big show, things sound excellent. Rears are used primarily for audience applause and ambient noise with the bulk of the music and stage banter coming from the front of the mix, as it should be. Bass response is very solid and there's a fair bit of realistic sounding surround activity to pick up on. There are no problems at all with hiss or distortion, and for the majority of the time the movie sounds excellent.
The main extra feature on the first disc in this two disc set is a nine-minute featurette entitled Patch It Up: The Restoration Of Elvis - That's The Way It Is. Featuring interviews with the producer of the restored version as well as a few of Elvis' band mates who appear in the film, this brief documentary does a fine job of explaining why the film was re-cut and what the intent was behind the new restored edition of the movie. It's fairly interesting stuff, even if a little more detail would have been welcome. Also included on the first disc are text pieces that provide biographical information on Elvis, an essay detailing career highlights, and the original theatrical trailer for the film.
The second disc in the set contains the original theatrical cut of the film. There are some fairly serious differences in the two cuts of the film, the main being that much of the fan and interview footage that made up the original version has been taken out for the 2001 version and been replaced with live footage. This makes the 2001 one version of the movie a leaner and meaner picture that puts more focus on Elvis and his stage presence than the original 1970 theatrical version does. Thankfully, both versions are here though some may be irked to know that the 1970 version doesn't look nearly as good as the 2001 version, nor does it sound as good. It's perfectly watchable but it's obvious that the same amount of love and care has not been put into this cut of the movie. This version of the movie is presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen, the audio is in Dolby Digital Mono with optional subtitles available in English and French.
Also included on disc two are A Dozen Never-Seen Outtake Song/Nonmusical Sequences. Available through a 'play all' option or as individual chapters, these clips are presented in rough looking non-anamorphic widescreen and run for a combined thirty-seven minutes. There's some additional rehearsal footage in here as well as some bits shot while he was on stage in Vegas - there's even a clip of the man eating, if that's your thing. Not really essential material, but it's definitely nice to see it included here.
Animated menus and chapter stops are provided on both discs. Inside the keepcase (which rests inside a slick slipcase containing identical artwork and text) is a nice booklet of pictures from the film with appropriate quotes from the movie printed underneath.
Even though the 1970 cut of the movie doesn't look as good as it probably should have, Warner Brothers have done a great job on this release and the restored 2001 version of the film is a fantastic document of just how freakin' good Elvis was in his prime. Elvis: That's The Way It Is comes highly recommended not just to established fans of the king but to anyone with even a passing interest in rock and roll. Great, great stuff.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.