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For his fans, the years 1968-70 mark the final turning point for the King; 1970 becomes the year Elvis takes Vegas. Fortunately, we have this period extremely well-documented in the Comeback Special and in Elvis: That's the Way It Is, which in its just-rereleased form might as well be a completely new movie.
Film restoration expert Rick Schmidlin doesn't quite see his own career this way, but he has devoted a considerable amount of time reconstructing the work of men who have self-destructed, as artists and as humans. He put up his cinematic scaffolding around Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (now available on DVD), Erich Von Stroheim's Greed and The Doors: Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
Now he's responsible for taking what was a fairly mundane Elvis documentary, directed by Denis Sanders, and rebuilding it, almost from scratch.
"We re-created it from head to toe. Back in the days when it was shot, the people who worked on it at MGM were people who did not know how to shoot that well, music, or how to edit music," says Schmidlin. "It wasn't that they weren't capable, it's just except for maybe Woodstock and Gimme Shelter and Monterey Pop, there weren't any music feature films. They were studio people, and the editors didn't know about cutting music. Now, after 30 years of video and features, we know better how to cut from vocals to guitar to drums to give it a better flow, a better sense of what's going on onstage."
The result is a far better film -- a movie that Presley fans on both sides of the Elvis stamp controversy are likely to enjoy for many of the same reasons.
What the film -- and the added footage in particular -- shows is an Elvis still fresh from his '68 comeback special. By this time, Presley has recognized where his talents chiefly lie: in performing and singing. He's abandoned acting, finally, and seems to have devoted himself to becoming a touring act. He's also found a considerable amount of fresh material in the last few years -- has in fact made some of his very best recordings, infinitely superior to the scrapple he turned out during what will become known as the "movie" decade.
Whatever fear possessed him when the musical landscape began to shift beneath his feet in the mid-'60s -- chiefly the result of the impact of the Beatles and the British Invasion -- seems to have made him a stronger act, and Elvis is the king of a new hybridized combination of Nashville country and Memphis R&B. He plays his early tunes and a lot of the newer stuff, a mix of Sun, RCA and Stax, impassioned, soulful and sweet.
Adds Schmidlin, "We found a man who was preparing for a new direction in his life, and when we see the film, we see someone who has a very, very positive way about the way he is going, and cannot foresee what is going to happen around the next corner. He's young -- 35 -- ready, and has a lot of hope. It's a lost moment in time before it's completely vanished from history in that he becomes a product of another environment."
In essence, he is revitalized, in control, but still nervous about Vegas, where he was shown the door as a youth, and where he is expected to stand alongside the Rat Pack, Louis Prima and so many more. This isn't the Louisiana Hayride, after all, or The Ed Sullivan Show. He's not a kid and he isn't playing for kids. When he enters the building, the International, he's professional show biz.
1970 was certainly a pivotal year for Elvis, and it isn't hard to project some sense of the inevitable in the documentary. The black leather Elvis wore in The Comeback Special was too hot, Elvis said, and so he shows a variety of strange, white, high-collared, open-to-the-waist outfits that seem rather tame today, but in those pre-glam/glitter times must have been something of a shock.
Early in That's the Way It Is, we see Elvis run his rehearsals, nervously, forcefully, making sure that his perfect pickup band is ready for anything he might throw at them, creating hand and musical cues. Presley allows them a lot of latitude, but one senses that he won't tolerate mistakes. Still, he's shaggy and having fun, mixing "Little Sister" with "Get Back."
Later in the film, we see the first stages of what would, a few short years later, become the Elvis/Liberace aesthetic -- which includes a red puffy shirt that would've sent Seinfeld screaming. The famed sideburns have returned and evidently learned to feed themselves. The additional footage in That's the Way It Is reveals all the clichés as well: the karate moves; the women fighting for the front of the stage so that Elvis might kiss them; the sweaty towels thrown into the audience.
Further back, in the booths and private tables, are stars ranging from Cary Grant to Sammy Davis Jr. The audiences from then on would become another kind of Memphis Mafia, another distorted reflection, as Elvis took the final turn in the river, becoming a showboat version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "I get so lonely, I could die."