Culver City, 1970, and the King of Rock 'n' Roll Elvis Presley is preparing for a run of concerts in Las Vegas in August, where he would more or less stay for the rest of his career. During rehearsals with his band, he jokes around and seems at ease, and every so often his coterie of hangers-on known as the Memphis Mafia show up to boost his confidence and keep his spirits up, but he appears fine with the backing band and singers who he puts through their paces. It's all very informal, but we can tell it means a lot to him to put on a good show, to justify the adulation that he will receive from the adoring throngs who turn up night upon night to hear him sing. This is all precis to a selection of performances collected over six nights at Vegas...
There's understandably a bittersweet quality to Elvis: That's the Way It Is, watching him train like a fighter for his big match then succeed in wowing the crowd just as he has hoped. Bittersweet because he could have basically read out the phone book and there would be tickets sold like hot cakes, so it's fortunate for entertainment's sake that he served up some excellent performances as captured by director Denis Sanders' camera (respected cinematographer Lucien Ballard actually got this material down on film). But more than that, we are seeing the final, extended phase of Presley's career where he settled into residencies at Las Vegas hotels and became a parody of himself, something arguably he has never wholly lived down.
The image of Elvis as profusely perspiring, grunting out his songs, stuffed into his white jumpsuits as his weight ballooned and his self-indulgence was allowed to run rampant thanks to the supporters of his lifestyle who regarded him as their meal ticket (of course Colonel Tom Parker is credited as creative consultant here, need you ask?) was really cemented by the footage in this film, and its follow up Elvis on Tour from a couple of years later. Throw in Aloha from Hawaii, his televised concert, and you can see why many are unsure of whether to take him seriously or not, or simply treat him as an icon to either build up or tear down, the actual person behind the celebrity all but obliterated in the storm of glitz and glamour, no matter how past his prime that nineteen-seventies filming solidified this image as. Besides, in this he is still in very good shape and voice: you can see why he played to packed houses night after night.
Yet when he runs through his old hits of the fifties and sixties in this film, so casually that you wonder if he really cares anymore, every song given the same country rock backing and introduced with him messing about or spending time kissing his female fans who line up for the privilege, you may not be too impressed and even wonder what the fuss was all about. This is a man who changed the world, after all, being reduced to akin to a novelty act for the holidaymakers in the chintz of Vegas, so how good could he be, anyway? While you never get a sense of the unbelievable impact Elvis had on pop culture from watching his seventies concerts, every so often he will surprise you by genuinely putting effort in, and offering an insight into that charisma, that ability to sell a song and have the audience in the palm of his hand, which made him one of the greats. The rendition of Suspicious Minds here is the most famous clip, and little wonder when it easily surpasses so many of his run-throughs elsewhere, but the fact we still debate Presley's significance all these years later means plenty; it may not be a religious experience for most who watch the film now, but he was a one of a kind, never to be repeated star, and that makes this very worthwhile.