Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge's concert documentary Elvis on Tour captures the "King of Rock & Roll" on the cusp--he was still riding high from his much-vaunted 1968 "comeback special," his powerful follow-up records, and his triumphant return to live performing. In the years that followed, as his paranoia, isolation, and intake of prescription medication increased, his onstage performances often faltered, his personal life became a shambles, and he became an increasingly unhealthy parody of himself. This 1972 film and the hugely successful Aloha From Hawaii special the following year offer perhaps the last glimpses of Presley as we'd like to remember him.
The picture was, in many ways, a sequel to his 1970 concert film Elvis: That's the Way It Is, which captured the fierce energy of his turn-of-the-decade Vegas show. As fine and fun a document as that film is, it wasn't the biggest music film of the year; that would be Woodstock, so Abel and Adidge aped that film's distinctive split-scene photography to spice up their visual presentation. They even retained one of Woodstock's editors to serve as their "montage supervisor," an up-and-coming young filmmaker by the name of Martin Scorsese.
That clever split-screen proves valuable for showing off Presley's busy stage show; he was backed by not only his own band and Joe Guercio's orchestra, but by soprano backing singer Kathy Westmoreland, the female soul trio The Sweet Inspirations, and the male combo J.D. Sumner and the Stamps. The editors (headed up by Ken Zemke, with a crew of assistant editors that included Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling) use the multiple chunks of the canvass to cut ingeniously to rhythm, most notably on "I Got a Woman," "An American Trilogy," and "Polk Salad Annie," as well as to spice up the traditional documentary footage (as comic Jackie Kahane finishes his warm-up on one side, Elvis and his crew arrive on the other).
In general, the musicianship isn't quite as tight here as it was in That's the Way It Is, but he's still a consummate showman, and there are several terrific numbers. Due to copyright issues, "Johnny B. Goode" has been removed as the opening number, but its replacement--a medley of "Teddy Bear" and a slightly raunchy "Don't Be Cruel"--sets a nice energy. "Burning Love" is rousing, even if Elvis has to use a lyric sheet for part of the song, while "Proud Mary" is brassy and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" is passionate and stirring. "I Got a Woman" is paced within an inch of its life, "A Big Hunk O' Love" is kitschy fun, and his unforgettable take on "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" has the low-down soul of a late-night ramble. Not every number is a home run: "Funny How Time Slips Away" is pretty listless, and "American Trilogy" is as corny as ever (though, true to form, he sings the hell out of it). And while I'm not sure that Sumner and the Stamps' "Sweet Sweet Spirit," which Elvis only listens to, was a worthwhile inclusion, the split image of the group performing and Elvis enjoying the gospel tune (and lip-syncing along) is pretty powerful.
The documentary sections--fly-on-the-wall rehearsal footage, airport arrivals and departures, interactions with the fans, venue set-up and warm-up, the breathless run to the car after the show--are engaging, and there are some priceless clips of Elvis cutting up on stage (he gets his mic caught in his necklace and goofs on it; he picks up a pair of panties from the stage and smirks to a woman in the front row, "Are these yours, honey?"). The most valuable element of the film, however, may very well be the extended (and rare) audio interview that Presley granted the filmmakers, which allows him to (albeit on a limited basis) narrate the film and provide commentary into his life and career. Some of the interview audio is remarkably candid--I was particularly struck by the early confession about his continuing stage fright, which is nicely matched to documentary footage of him backstage, waiting to go on. The combination of his private nature, the heretofore unforeseen scope of his fame, and the constant image control of Colonel Tom Parker kept Elvis an enigma for most of his life, and the years following his death. But in those brief moments, Elvis on Tour feels like a glimpse behind a carefully-maintained curtain.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The 25GB Blu-ray disc comes packaged in a handsome DigiBook, with stills, essays, tour dates, and plenty of trivia inside.
Warner's new DVD and Blu-ray re-release is nicely restored--there are a few bugaboos (occasional faint vertical lines, some soft shots), but the 2.35:1 image (slightly matted on the sides for one-frame compositions, letterboxed a bit more when they go to three or more simultaneous frames) has a nice, thick cinematic grain, decent saturation, and deep, inky black levels. The doc shots in low light are a touch messy, and some may find the VC-1 transfer to be too grainy overall, but like last year's Woodstock release, the picture strikes me as accurate and evocative.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 boasts rich, full concert audio, with nice separation--rear channels are mostly used for crowd reactions and vocal echoes, placing the viewer right in the midst of the adoring audience. The documentary audio is thin at times, and occasionally tinny, but the robust concert sound more than makes up for those minor moments of weakness.
The disc also includes 20 subtitle options.
Disappointingly, not a single one.
Elvis on Tour occasionally stumbles--is a full mid-movie retrospective of his rise to fame, complete with photos and clips, really necessary for the people who are watching this movie?--but the music is spirited, the filmmaking is inventive, and it offers a tantalizing glimpse of a legend in action.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.