If Elvis really does live, he’s now a 75-year-old dinosaur reliving his glory days doing karaoke versions of his hits in roadside taverns. But then he does live in a way, through his music and movies, which are perpetually rereleased with every notable anniversary (2007 was the last one, the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death). For the 75th Anniversary of his birth, Warner repackages its Elvis library along with the DVD debut of the last theatrical Elvis film that was, until now, unavailable.
The concert film Elvis on Tour (1972), which debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray, captures Elvis a couple of years into his seventies revival as a Vegas headliner and concert superstar with performances filmed during a 1972 15-city concert tour. Unlike the superior 1970 Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, this one captures the King after he’s settled in to live performance and his glitzy new style of showmanship. He’s still a dynamic performer but you can already see that he’s packing on weight (despite the grueling workout of his show, pouring off sweat through the sets) and at times he seems to be simply falling into familiar rhythms. He’s all professionalism and really connects with his fans (he showers the front rows with his trademark scarves) but only rarely is he gripped in the fire of genuine passion.
There’s a smattering of backstage footage and travel shots, a time-capsule montage of Elvis’ early years and a ridiculous montage of silly love scenes from the movies cut into a performance of “Love Me Tender,” but only the marvelous gospel jam session with his band and back-up singers offers any insight to the man behind the image. The rest is Elvis on stage, doing old classics (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”), new hits (“Burning Love”) and lots of covers (from “Proud Mary” to the bluesy “Polk Salad Annie,” a personal favorite of mine), and the filmmakers go split-screen crazy to cut in audience shots. That particular technique is borrowed from Woodstock, which is no surprise: Martin Scorsese (part of the editing team on Woodstock) is credited as “montage supervisor.” No supplements, but it is also available individually in a Blu-ray book with photos and notes on the film and the concerts.
For heft, you’ve got the Elvis 75th Anniversary DVD Collection (Warner), aka the King of all Elvis box sets: 17 films (over half of his filmography), from Jailhouse Rock (1957) through 13 of his silly sixties features (including newly restored and remastered editions of Kissin’ Cousins and Girl Happy) to his concert films of the seventies (including the DVD debut of the 1972 Elvis on Tour; more on that later), plus the documentary This is Elvis (1981). It sweeps the best (Viva Las Vegas) and the worst (take your pick, from It Happened At The World’s Fair to Charro!) of Elvis into one 17-disc set, collected in two supersized keepcases with hinged trays and a slipsleeve. (For the record, the rest of the sixties silly symphonies in the set are Tickle Me, Harum Scarum, Spinout, Double Trouble, Stay Away, Joe, Speedway and Live a Little, Love a Little.) And note that while it includes original 1981 version of This is Elvis (1981) and not the version expanded for home video with more material, it does include the 2000 restoration of the essential concert film/comeback documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970/2000), which chronicles his phoenix-like rebirth as a Vegas showman as a concert rockumentary interspersed with interviews, backstage material, and a wealth of footage featuring the King in rehearsal. Producer Rick Schmidlin doesn’t merely restore clarity and richness to sound and image, he remakes the production in a linear fashion and jettisons much of the behind-the-scenes glimpses for more music, a calculated trade-off. The rehearsals are still a highlight, where Elvis jokes and laughs with an ease in contrast to his mumbling on-stage banter. Is the King nervous in his live comeback? Only between songs, it seems: he pours sweat in a passionate performance, but when he sings it sounds effortless.
It’s the easiest way to grab up all those forgettable sixties films along with the seventies rockumentaries in one easy and efficient package, but I confess I’d like to see the DVD equivalent of the RCA CD set “Elvis Command Performances: The Essential 60s Masters II,” something that plucks all the musical numbers out of the films so we can just skip through the moments that count (and, quite frankly, a whole mess of bad songs that he muscles through on sheer professionalism). Also includes commentary by rock journalist Steve Pond on two films, a handful of featurettes, a commemorative booklet and an envelope of reproduction of Elvis memorabilia.
And for those waiting for the hi-def upgrade, there’s the Elvis Blu-ray Collection: three Elvis classics making their Blu-ray debut in a triple feature collection. Jailhouse Rock (1957) is his third film and arguably his definitive screen appearance, playing a working class kid who lands in stir after a bar fight gone bad and emerges surly, hardened, and with a gift for rocking. He’s not much of an actor, but he’s dynamic in the film’s set piece, where is swivels and shakes through a dance number set to the title song. “It’s just the beast in me.” MGM musical specialist George Sidney helms Viva Las Vegas (1963) and gives the musical numbers a dynamic that no other Elvis film has, while Elvis meets his match in screen spitfire Ann-Margaret. Colonel Tom Parker made sure a costar never again made Elvis work for the spotlight in one of movies. The featurettes on Jailhouse and Viva are routine productions with more visual flash than interesting background. The commentary tracks, both delivered by music journalist Steve Pond (author of “Elvis in Hollywood”), are much more interesting and informative. Elvis on Tour (reviewed above and also available separately) rounds out the collection.
Postscript: For a different kind of anniversary remembrance, check out the book Return of the King, a chronicle of his phoenix-like rebirth from the ’68 Comeback Special through his return to the concert circuit, by my colleague and friend Gillian Gaar. I haven’t finished the book yet but I really like I’ve read so far.