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.