Everybody knows there were two Elvis Presleys. The young one was a hillbilly firebrand who popularized rock 'n' roll and terrified parents by making the link between sex and popular music impossible to ignore; the old one was a bloated, drugged parody of himself, shoehorned into a spangled jump suit, and incapable of finishing a song on stage.
But those of us who didn't witness the shift as it happened may not realize that the transformation didn't occur overnight — that Elvis didn't start sucking the first time he put on a jump suit with rhinestones. The documentary Elvis — That's The Way It Is captures the icon just as that transition was beginning. While this is clearly no longer the man who cut "Blue Moon of Kentucky," he is still as in touch with reality as is possible for a man in blue suede shoes. He's a joker both in rehearsal footage — where he dons upside-down sunglasses and sings a Chipmunk-vocal "Crying Time" — and on stage, where he plays with the audience in a way that, although self-indulgent, is good-natured and well received by the Las Vegas crowd. (Sometimes better received than by the movie viewer, as when Elvis spends "Love Me Tender" running around kissing women, and can't be bothered to sing the song.)
Just two years after the legendary 1968 "Comeback Special," Elvis is moving farther away from his roots — the show here is an archetypal Vegas one, with slicked-up versions of hits and a couple of schmaltzy ballads. Yet there's a strong musicianship underlying it, and as the rehearsals reveal — where Elvis is able to communicate what he wants with smarts and efficiency — musicianship wasn't just the product of a crack group of instrumentalists. It wasn't going to be that way for long, but That's The Way It Is is an intriguing glimpse of what was.
TEXAS PUBLIC RADIO'S CINEMA TUESDAYS:
ELVIS — THAT'S THE WAY IT IS
Tuesday, August 13
$10 members, $12 non-members
AMC Huebner Oaks
Elvis — That's The Way It Is is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.
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