Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) has long been considered a definitive document of The King’s later years, and the newly released Blu-ray Digi-Book of it is the ultimate edition. The filming began with the July 1970 rehearsals and continued on through Presley’s three night stand at the International Hotel in Las Vegas during August of that year. With thousands of feet of raw material to work with, there have been two distinct versions of That’s the Way It Is: the original 1970 theatrical release (DVD), and a 2001 “special edition.” (Blu-ray) This new two-disc set contains both, along with over an hour of outtakes and bonus features.
The most obvious difference between the two are their respective lengths. The original runs for 108 minutes, while the 2001 edit is only 95. My first thought was that the missing 13 minutes came out of the lengthy opening rehearsal scenes, but that is not exactly the case. The second version deletes a great deal of non-musical material from the first, including behind-the-scenes footage, delirious fans, and even Elvis impersonators. As it turns out, there are actually two more songs on the shorter, second version than on the first.
While I applaud the focus on the music, it is surprising that some of the great songs from the theatrical release are not included in the second edition. Presley’s take on “I Just Can’t Help Believin” is a real highlight of the original, yet absent from the second, as is “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The reverse is also true, with signature tunes such as “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Hound Dog” being left out of the 1970 film, but included on the 2001 set.
Between the two discs of this set we do get it all though, plus a very cool 40-page book. The book contains essays about the shows, and Presley’s return to touring after so many years off making films. There are some marvelous shots of him performing, as well as the band and backing vocalists.
Presley’s five-piece group were called the TCB Band, and featured James Burton (lead guitar), Glen D. Hardin (piano), Jerry Scheff (bass guitar), Ronnie Tutt (drums), and John Wilkinson (rhythm guitar). Burton’s solo on “Blue Suede Shoes” is especially fierce, and during his bluesy “Heartbreak Hotel” we hear Elvis murmur “Play it, Jimmy.” The six-man Imperials provide the male backing vocals, while the four-woman Sweet Inspirations supply the female backing. A young woman named Cissy Houston was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, and her daughter Whitney was six years old at the time.
The crew filmed everything, and the outtakes provide a wealth of bonus material. These include such ephemeral items of interest as the self-descriptive “Eating Sequence,” and “After Show Party.” There are also 12 rehearsal segments, which include such songs as “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “Cattle Call,” and “Farther Along,” among others. The most intriguing bonus is a nine-minute documentary of the restoration of the film, “Patch it Up: The Reconstruction of Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.” They did a fantastic job with the reconstruction. The Blu-ray of the 2001 revamp looks splendid in 1080p with a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The audio is awesome as well, and is presented in 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio.
While it seems that all of the extraneous material was included to make this more than “just” an Elvis concert movie, it is the performances that count. As I discovered to my dismay, years and years of parody had taken their toll on my perception of him. I had forgotten just how electrifying a performer Presley could be. His entrance is as dramatic as ever, and it is a rare treat to watch the girls swoon during “Love Me Tender.” He loved his audience, and even has the band vamp for a moment while he signs autographs. Elvis took these performances very seriously, and it shows. From the rehearsals through the six performances, his dedication is obvious, as is his raw talent. Presley was still in top form in 1970, and Elvis: That’s the Way It Is captures it all.