Elvis Presley c.1975. Photo: Getty
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In 1970’s That’s The Way It Is, you get Elvis at his artistic peak

With this re-release of the 1970 documentary, the question is really how many different versions of “Suspicious Minds” you want in your life.

Elvis: That’s The Way It Is was a documentary shot in 1970, covering Elvis Presley’s third, triumphant Las Vegas season. Just eighteen months after the televised 1968 Comeback Special had brought him out of his baleful Hollywood years, Elvis was looking good and sounding strong, recording contemporary material by a new wave of southern writers like Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie”), Joe South (“Walk A Mile In My Shoes”) and Mark James (“Suspicious Minds”). Watching the movie now, it’s hard to credit how swift his decline would be. Six years after the film was released, he was dead.

Leaving the Sun sessions aside, That’s The Way It Is finds Elvis at his artistic peak. He can belt out “Heartbreak Hotel”, caress then-current single “I’ve Lost You”, and add funk to the Bee Gees’ “Words”. The closeness between the singer and his crack band (including James Burton on guitar and the Sweet Inspirations on backing vocals) is seen backstage in rehearsals, which are as revealing as the shows. The white jump-suit fits snugly, but not too snugly. And his sense of humour, often hidden behind politeness in the Fifties, is daft, endearing, and a constant presence – it makes sense that he was a big Monty Python fan when you hear him read out a postcard from the Pope. Beyond this, there are telling interviews with fans, from a nerdish obsessive, to a highly religious couple, to Ann Moses, the young editor of Tiger Beat (the Smash Hits of its day), dressed in her best Marsha Brady outfit. Nevertheless, director Denis Sanders was criticised by some Elvis fans for including these cameos, and the film was completely recut in 2000 to feature more live performances.

Which brings us to the 2014 edition of That’s The Way It Is. This 12” box set compiles the 1971 soundtrack album, both the original and recut versions of the film, six full length concerts, plus a superfluous disc of Elvis mucking about in rehearsals. The box is bulked out with a decent 80-page photo book, which includes an Ann Moses interview with Denis Sanders, and brief interviews with the musicians and a few key songwriters. It’s a handsome looking set, and Sony/RCA have done well not to toy with the original, jump-suit cover.

The performances are uniformly intense and engaging. Elvis was at his most charming and confident at the turn of the Seventies, post-comeback and pre-divorce. He’s a hoot, doling out kisses to the front row during “Love Me Tender”, snoring as he does the band introductions, and throwing in lines like “We had to learn fifty songs for this show... we were supposed to learn fifty songs, we only learned five. So here’s one of the ones we don’t know.” He introduces the ballad “Twenty Days And Twenty Nights” with “It’s not a great song and I don’t particularly dig singing it”. Does he mean it? Probably not, as he says much the same for B J Thomas’s exquisite “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, before delivering the definitive, tough but delicate version, a UK #6 hit in late 1971.

One of the pleasures of this set is to hear, for the first time, the complete concert that contained this familiar recording – we finally get to find out why Elvis sniggers on the line “with a trace of misty morning”. Some nights he played the Beatles’ “Get Back”, other nights the underrated “Patch It Up”. He always finished with “Suspicious Minds” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love”.

So the question is how many different versions of “Suspicious Minds” you want in your life. Six discs that start and end with the same songs? If you own the three disc “That’s The Way It Is”, released to coincide with the recut film in 2000, you may not think you need anything else. Having lived with this set for a week, I can’t get enough of it; it’s immersive, and terrific fun. In fact, my main gripe is that there isn’t a companion CD set of the rehearsals, which look and sound tremendous on the DVDs – rather frustratingly, they are all listed in the accompanying book, and apparently almost all of them were recorded. If you’re going to push the boat out with an eight-disc set, you may as well make it fourteen discs and include everything. With pop’s brightest star at the absolute top of his game, there’s no such thing as too much.

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories