They Just Can't Help Believing

Mar 11, 2001
By 1968, Elvis Presley's career was at an all-time low. The combined effect of the mid-60s British invasion led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the revolution in American music spearheaded by the Beach Boys, the Doors and Janis Joplin, ensured that the King's slick black quiff and curling upper lip had become as corny as communist paranoia and ice-cream sodas. Having spent most of the decade forsaking stage and studio for the cheap sets of one Hollywood B-movie after another, Elvis was, at the tender age of 33, all washed up. Help came in the form of a young NBC television producer, Steve Binder. Binder put Elvis back on the map with a verite-style documentary, featuring a stripped-down performance that cured Elvis of his stage fright and, by giving him contemporary material and a sharp, leather-clad image, made him relevant again. Elvis responded to the show's success by telling his manager, the notorious Colonel Parker: "I've got to get back in front of the public. I've got to get out on the road again!" The colonel responded by showcasing his boy at Las Vegas, home of ageing crooners, gambling grannies and traditional entertainment in all its stagnant forms. Elvis had played Vegas once before - in 1956 he had bombed in front of an audience shocked by his then controversial stage show - and he hated the idea of going back. But Parker was enticed by the thought of a residency at the world's largest and most lavish hotel, the 1,500-room International, and signed his boy to play two months a year for five years. That's the Way It Is, the concert film of Elvis's 1970 performances at the Hotel International, documents the beginning of the Vegas period that lasted up until Elvis's death, and shows how, despite his misgivings, he rose to the occasion magnificently. Starved to perfection and knocking them dead in a white jumpsuit, Elvis shivered and shook before a 35-piece orchestra, two vocal groups and a soprano; kissed 100 swooning girls; karate-kicked his way through Suspicious Minds; and generally gave the performance of a lifetime. This despite the fact that That's the Way It Is was made in the same year that, doped up to his eyeballs, Elvis visited President Nixon to demand that he be appointed special agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He still appears as a regular guy, joking around in rehearsals, admitting to stage fright, and giving the people what they want. A new edit of the film forsakes the fan and bell-boy interviews of old for pure, undiluted Elvis. For those who still live and breathe the King, this is the definitive version. Sid Shaw, proprietor of Elvisly Yours The first film wasn't punchy enough, there wasn't enough Elvis and it lost its momentum. This is pure Elvis. It shows the warmth of the man, the personality, the humour, the amazing talent. He puts on his glasses back to front, he falls off his chair... it must have been a real fun experience to rehearse with Elvis because he just wanted to have a good time, entertain people, and make them forget their worries. This version of the film has been around for 17 years, but because the people who own Graceland are so litigious it has been denied to the general public. Finally they have come to their senses, and I think it'll be the resurrection of Elvis. You come out of this film feeling that you've been entertained, and that's what Elvis did. You could listen to Heartbreak Hotel or Jailhouse Rock 1,000 times and they're still fresh. When you listen to a Spice Girls song, after half a dozen hearings you want to bang your head against a wall - but Elvis had something therapeutic in his voice. A lot of handicapped people love Elvis Presley. It's almost like a religious phenomenon, and it's so sad that all these years he hasn't been promoted. This is his year: 2001 was his theme tune. If you add together the year he died, the month he died, and the day he died, it comes to 2001, which is quite uncanny. People always write about the drugs and the hamburgers, but it's the music that will be remembered in the 25th century. OK, he had his personal problems, but he was a great entertainer, the world's best. He had some kind of aura. His voice had matured by the 1970s; like good wine it got better and better. The guy sold a billion records. No one will ever get near that. No one. Shaun Blacker, Essential Elvis magazine The new version is better because it's got more of Elvis in rehearsal - you see more of the man himself. I think the early Vegas years were his best time, as he was at his peak. He had had enough of the films, he wanted to get back onstage, and this was filmed during the first few dates in Vegas. OK, later on he wasn't so fit, but in 1970 he was 100%, and he was enjoying it. I don't think Elvis really enjoyed his life from the 1960s onwards - I think he was a simple person who wanted to do some thing special, and after he achieved that he was always harking back to his roots. Everyone knows about the drug situation, and that was part of the problem. It's the charisma of the man. When he walked on stage everyone was awestruck. In January, I met Sonny West, Elvis's bodyguard, and he said that he was a real friend. When you see Elvis in the film joking around, that's exactly the way he was: relaxed, doing his music, just a bloke like you or me who happened to be very talented. But a lot of people were frightened of him too, and he had too many yes-men around him. He needed people to tell him where he was going wrong, which was what Sonny and Red West did, and Elvis fired them. He had a low opinion of himself at the time, he didn't think the public thought highly of him. He thought he'd been away too long to go back to the stage, and making this film helped him a lot. Alice Castle, producer of a 15-part series on Elvis for BBC World Service I like this version of the film firstly because it starts with the date of the first rehearsal, August 7 1970, which was the day I was born, and secondly because it sums up that whole age of the Vegas gang of Sammy Davis Jr and George Hamilton, and the Memphis Mafia [the group of friends and cronies who went everywhere with Elvis]. There's a moment when he's rehearsing and Colonel Parker calls him a "big-ass". It shows there was tension between them, and you remember that the reason why Elvis made all of those awful films was to support Colonel Parker's gambling habit. It's easy for us, 30 years on, to look at this film as a showcase for a great entertainer, but that's part of the myth. He was kitsch at the time - I remember my parents saying that anyone who had any taste in music thought Elvis was naff in the early 1970s - but if you speak to the hardcore fans they say this was his greatest moment; maybe because he was essentially a performance artist who didn't write his own material, and this was his biggest performance. If you saw this film on a huge screen, in a drive-in with massive speakers on either side, it would be the closest you'd get to seeing Elvis live. But what's been included are all of the most famous 1950s songs, and anyone who knows a lot about Elvis may be disappointed because their personal favourites aren't there. Elvis impersonator Di and her Elvis-loving manager Shirley Shirley: We got to the last couple of numbers and I realised I was starting to cry. Something said to me: what the hell - or who - put this man on earth? I looked over at Di and she was crying as well. Then you realise: this man invented rock'n'roll. Di: These days people think Elvis was fat for the whole of the Vegas period, when in reality he was only fat for the last six months of his life. These people just see rhinestones, fat and burgers, but for those who were there when it was happening, it was just phenomenal. That was my first vision of Elvis - when I was nine I saw a picture of him in a white jumpsuit,

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