This Is Elvis is an interesting documentary that, through archival clips, live performances, and reenactment footage, attempts to paint a portrait of what Elvis was really like as a performer and as a person. While the film isn't completely successful in every regard, it does contain some great vintage footage of the King in action, much of which isn't readily available anywhere else.
Written and directed by the team of Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo (the same team who gave us It Came From Hollywood), the film uses reenactments to recreate Elvis' childhood and youth. While it's unfortunate that these scenes don't really work very well, thankfully they don't make up very much of the film and soon enough we're treated to some of Elvis' actual home movies. The directors do bounce back to some more reenactments later in the film, including a bit where Elvis goes to his mother's death bed and a segment where he walks into his house shortly before his death, but the vast majority of the rest of the movie is authentic and therefore quite important.
Contained in the film are some very interesting and obviously very personal clips. We're able to join in on one of Elvis' birthday parties while he was in the service during the war and we see him hanging out and having a good time with close friends and family including some touching bits where his parents arrive at Graceland. There are also some fantastic live performances in here, including some familiar television appearances such as his famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Steve Allen Show. Later era performances show the man looking very much worn out and messing up a key song, but his voice is still there even during these low points. We also see a lot of clips of Elvis at his worst. As everyone knows, he was a bit of a mess before he died, hooked on pills and grossly overweight to the point where he really was a shadow of his younger self. Much of that very real drama is captured here, accented by some clips of ob obviously stoned Elvis zoned out in the back of his car.
This Is Elvis certainly would have been a much stronger picture had Solt and Leo opted to make is a completely straight documentary rather than use impersonators for a few scenes as they reenactments do pull you out of the picture. Ral Donner provides most of the voice over work in place of Elvis and while he doesn't do a bad job with it per se, he is obviously not the real Elvis and those familiar with his voice will certainly pick up on this. The fantastic live clips and intimate home movie footage, however, more than makes up for these flubs and it's for this reason that the film is worth seeing for it winds up providing a rare glimpse into the ups and downs of a true musical icon's personal life without sugar coating things or skipping around the less than pretty moments. Elvis was human and therefore he was flawed just like the rest of us and by painting a chronological picture of his life, this picture drives home how sad it was to watch the man fall from grace in his end times.
Note: When the film was released theatrically it ran for roughly 101 minutes. When released on home video a few years later, it was lengthened to roughly 143 minutes. It includes quite a bit of uncensored footage from the comeback show in addition to longer reenactment clips and earlier concert footage but it loses the live version of Are You Lonesome Tonight and shows us Love Me in its place. Warner Brothers Home Video has included the theatrical version of the film uncut on the first disc in this set and the home video version on disc two.
The theatrical version on the first disc is presented in its original 1.85.1 aspect ratio in a nice anamorphic transfer whereas the expanded version, which was originally released on home video, is presented in 1.33.1 fullframe format. While there is some grain present and the odd speck or two appears on the picture from time to time, for the most part both films look quite good. The archival material can be a bit rough in spots but the newer footage and reenactment footage all looks nice and colorful. Black levels are fine and while there is some softness present in places it's only minor and never overly distracting.
This Is Elvis is given a nice English language 2.0 Stereo track for the theatrical cut whereas the extended cut is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The stereo track has a little more kick to it than the Mono track does, but both versions of the movie sound good. Dialogue and narration is clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion and the levels always sound properly balanced.
Supplements are found on disc one only and they include a featurette called Behind The Gates Of Graceland (9:18) which is an older shot on video tour of Elvis' home. We get a chance to see his horses, his racquetball court, his meditation garden, some of his cars, gold records, wardrobe, and much more. Additionally, there are trailers included for the following This Is Elvis and Elvis: That's The Way It Is.
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.
While the reenactment footage isn't so hot, the archival clips and live footage makes this two disc set containing both cuts of This Is Elvis a pretty essential release for fans. More extras would have been a welcome addition but the quality and content here is solid all the way across the board. Recommended.
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.