Mon Oct 27, 2008 8:29 am
“We want Elvis! We want Elvis! We want Elvis!” That’s the chant that closes the final non-credit frames of Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel’s Elvis on Tour, an examination of an American institution who has only grown larger in stature since they made their film in 1972. That closing chant underlines Abel and Adidge’s thesis of America’s need for dependable institutions and Elvis’ place in filling that role. I wish their film went deeper on the way Elvis’ status affected him as a man and an artist and the reasons we need those institutions why Elvis specifically fit the bill.
Elvis on Tour is the only Elvis related film ever cop a major industry award in 1972’s Golden Globe for Best Documentary. It is also, alongside Aloha From Hawaii, the only professional footage of Elvis’ third peak stage period (the first being the ‘50s and the second 1969-1970). So, its status as a treasure for the true Elvis fan is assured especially as many of the performances here, indicative of the year they were recorded, are excellent.
Does it stand up as a film though and as essential document on Elvis Presley? Yes and no. There are a lot of small insights here and we do see a bit of the real Elvis. The problem is with the larger conclusions. It’s really hard to come up with any because the film is kind of choppy and all over the place. Additionally, although there is little doubt of the filmmakers objectivity they apparently were not granted unfettered access to the privacy conscious Presley, a point that ultimately worked to keep things relatively shallow. It also probably did not help that Robert Abel was not an Elvis fan going into the project. I don’t mean this to imply that the film was a hatchet job in any sense. Elvis comes off very positively. But, Abel’s status as an outsider meant that he probably had not spent the years before the film thinking of the big questions that needed to be asked. In other words, this wasn’t a film he personally needed to make. In other words, someone needed to ask the questions that a Peter Guralnick, a Jon Landau or a Greil Marcus were formulating in print at that time and Abel was not that man.
The film is fairly simple in premise. We follow Elvis in concert and backstage (though not in private quarters other than a limousine) on a 15 city sojourn mostly through the American South in 1972.
Abel and Adidge give us a good idea of the routine, work and drudgery that go into touring. They also give us a big picture that goes beyond the singer and the band but also to the concessionaires, stage hands, the local police, even staffers at local hotels. This, to me, is a flaw of the picture as it pulls time away from its unique subject. I have no doubt that these details are often no different for any other artist on any tour. Maybe people didn’t realize that in 1972 but, in 2008 it’s old hat.
What isn’t old hat is the way the filmmakers capture the excitement of an Elvis Presley show. Using a variety of camera angles and split screens, they capture Elvis’ interplay with the musicians and with his audiences. And Elvis is in pretty fine form giving them something interesting to capture on film. He doesn’t always look his best. His hair is a little shaggy and the straight part to the side does not flatter him, nor does the slight gain in weight he has endured since the general public saw him last in 1970. And not every performance is up to standard. But generally, he is focused and alive on stage, singing and moving very well, and generally enjoying himself. Every so often the odd burst of genius pops through and we’re treated to something special.
There are many memorable moments. The finest of which comes when Elvis reaches the climax of “American Trilogy.” The filmmakers make excellent use of split screen here. As the music swells we see Elvis in the center frame, alternately members of the audience and orchestra on one side and a member of the Sweet Inspirations in the third frame. The Sweets almost appear to be looking at Elvis in awe. Each one of the panels goes black in succession. Then we get a great shot over the back of Ronnie Tutt’s drum kit of a defiantly proud and supremely beautiful Elvis occupying center stage like a human Mount Rushmore, contrasted with a split screen shot of fans caught in absolute frenzy. When Elvis goes into the sanctified final verse, he is the embodiment of Americanism generous, powerful and all encompassing but, also rich, domineering and unapologetic. In other words, basically everything his audience could aspire to be. Greil Marcus has commented that he felt this was ultimately an empty gesture. However, I don’t believe so and don’t think the filmmakers agreed either. This audience needs a confirmation of its dreams, itself and its potential and Elvis needs to give it to them.
This is the big insight of the film, we need (Americans I guess, the film doesn’t specify) icons like Elvis, especially Elvis. Every time Elvis gets on stage one of the things we notice is the blinding blast of flashbulbs from the audience; it almost looks like a minor fireworks display. We don’t need the perfunctory fan interviews to know that getting to see Elvis Presley is not a nice little night out, but a major event in their lives. We see the same thing with the crowds at the airport and the hotels. We see it when the mayor gives Elvis the Key to the city. The arrival of Elvis Presley in town is an event of towering importance. This is a factor the rock histories miss when they dismiss Elvis as “irrelevant” in this period. By this time, Elvis had transcended chart positions, record sales and even the current music scene. He was a force of nature. One might as well call the sky irrelevant.
Adidge and Abel let us know that it wasn’t always this way when they capture a shot of Elvis in a reflective mood and it leads into an excellent montage of vintage ‘50s photos to the tune of “Don’t Be Cruel.” Eventually, we find our way back to the 21-year-old Elvis performing the tune on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1956. He’s just a hungry kid who wants to make a mark, to be taken into the audience’s hearts. Then Elvis tears into a wild version of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy.” Greil Marcus has called the performance “unearthly” and he was right. Again, Adidge and Abel use the split screen to excellent effect surrounding Elvis with footage of reactions of early teen fans to “unearthly” performances like this. The bond is formed. It has been said that the older Elvis in the rest of the film can’t compare to the Elvis represented in this footage. That’s true but not a slap at the older Elvis. One of the things you notice in this amazing performance is that Elvis is the embodiment of the joy of youth. Full of energy and humor, un-self-conscious, sexy, he is everything being 21 is about. As Ed Sullivan said “It’s wonderful to be that way.” This was something a lot of people had forgotten in 1956 and a lot of young people had never learned. Having woke the audience up, Elvis got what he wanted and now the older Elvis had to play a different role. If what the younger Elvis did in waking the audience up to the possibilities of life and youth was a more profound achievement, that doesn’t mean that what the older Elvis gave the audience- a reminder of that promise, a belief in what had they done and what they could still do- was negligible.
A second montage is nearly as effective in carrying the Elvis story to its then current point. The montage inter-cuts between love scenes from a series of Elvis’ sillier films with Elvis singing “Love Me Tender” on stage in 1972. This segment makes a comment on several aspects of Elvis’ career. It demonstrates how his unique talent got pigeonholed into a traditional role- the matinee sex idol. It also pokes fun at the relative concept of a sex idol as the split-screen captures Elvis on one screen and a clueless old man on another. This performance was not meant to go over with the males in this audience. Finally, when footage of Elvis singing “Love Me Tender” at one show morphs into another show with Elvis doing the exact same moves, it is hinted that Elvis’ new role as American icon has caught him up a in similar artistic treadmill.
Or does it? The great flaw in the movie which leaves so much of the intent inconclusive is that we get too little of Elvis Presley the man and artist. As I said before, Elvis comes off very positively in the film. He is charming and has a very sharp sense of humor. He is also aware of himself and a walk through a welcoming crowd reveals he truly loves his fans. We also understand that Elvis loves music and loves to sing. He sings off stage on many occasions in the film. And, on stage, when Elvis lets his J.D. Sumner and the Stamps engage in some fine group harmony, we see he loves to listen.
However, we don’t learn a whole lot about what he thinks. The film opens with Elvis recalling in a voice over interview his father’s early objection to his music career. “I never saw a guitar player that was worth a damn.” It’s a frank, funny, reflective anecdote and the film needs more like it. Sadly, except for a few early career reminisces and a confession of stage fright, the voice over interview technique is basically abandoned for the rest of the film. A scene with Elvis in a (mock) recording session is wasted. We’re not with him enough time to make any judgments and, Elvis explains nothing about his technique, song selection etc. It’s a good scene because Elvis sings a good song but it’s not a good piece of documentary.
In retrospect, discerning viewers can notice the effects of Elvis’ drug habit in some scenes, particularly the one in the back of a limousine. Overall, though, Elvis seems fairly healthy and happy. You would never know that this was not a prime time in Elvis’ personal life. Often in the film he seems bored (even on stage in a few circumstances). But, we don’t know where that boredom is coming from. It may just be the results of wear and tear of the road. The film doesn’t get close enough to Elvis to make such a call. Clearly, the Presley organization (especially Elvis himself) wouldn’t allow that kind of access. Nonetheless, it hurts the film’s mission.
The point about Elvis’ stage act paralleling the routine of his movie career is a good example. Maybe Elvis would agree or maybe Elvis would argue that he was happy in this place because his new role allowed him to be more of himself. We don’t know because the question was not asked.
The other area where Adidge and Abel whiff is in the “Why Elvis?” argument. That towering Ed Sullivan appearance provides a little hint but there is so much more that goes into it and the film does not venture there. Some comments from a delirious (and sadly annoying) fan hint at the sea change represented by Elvis and his revolution. She proclaims that Elvis will never grow old and that he is still handsome. Elvis was only 37 years old in 1972, hardly an old man and hardly at an age where a male’s looks are considered to fade. His career was not yet 20 years old and he had been on the national stage even less time. Yet, he seemed to be an older man, someone who was around forever because he marked a beginning for so many people. The film just never goes that deep.
Despite its flaws, though, this remains a valuable and entertaining document. It captures some terrific Elvis performances, the best of his personality, and provides a compelling, albeit less than definitive, look at a major icon and his audience.
Mon Oct 27, 2008 3:59 pm
Thanks, LTB !
I reckon you should write a book on Elvis !
Mon Oct 27, 2008 7:42 pm
First of all, LTB talks of Elvis 3 peak stages (‘50s, 1969/1970, 1972/1973), but his equation leaves out some of Elvis finest eras as an artist – Elvis’ 1960 Nashville recording sessions and the 1968 Comeback Special as they represent two of Elvis’ greatest artistic accomplishments.
The second complaint he has with Elvis On Tour seems to be the inability of the filmmakers to get inside Elvis; to get a sense of what he thinks, what makes him tick, etc. Whether the filmmakers were fans or not, clearly no one was going to get that kind insight.
Elvis On Tour is a fine music documentary. Hardcore Elvis enthusiasts would prefer more performance footage, compete songs, etc. But, the filmmakers did a very solid job creating a picture of life on the road for one of the world’s biggest rock stars in 1972. It has it all: rehearsals, travel, live footage, backstage footage, venue set-up/preparations. Elvis On Tour is somewhat of a fascinating look into Elvis’ professional life during the end of his prime. While so many continue to campaign for an official release of Elvis In Concert, perhaps more of a focus should be to have this original film of Elvis On Tour back in print. A deluxe edition would be nice with outtake footage and a complete release of Hampton Roads, but putting that dream aside, the original documentary is an essential project and should be available.
Mon Oct 27, 2008 9:28 pm
Great post, LTB
Sadly, except for a few early career reminisces and a confession of stage fright, the voice over interview technique is basically abandoned for the rest of the film.
That´s sad but true: there was / is a lot of footage with Presley speaking about his love for Gospel music and remembering old days (the black and white interview) and very little was used in the movie. An Elvis Presley narration of his own career could have been pretty interesting. Fortunately, the recent out-takes give us something more of that missing deepness.
Elvis On Tour is somewhat of a fascinating look into Elvis’ professional life during the end of his prime.
I agree. A 1.000.000 times more interesting and interesting than the very last years. We need a deluxe edition NOW.
Tue Oct 28, 2008 2:38 am
By stage period I meant "live" or "in concert" and perhaps I should have said that. 1960-1962 is not in the equation because Elvis only performed live on a handful of occasions. 1968 is omitted because the only live performances were the stuff for the TV show. Sorry about any confusion. The stuff Elvis did in the early '60s was wonderful but I'm talking concerts.
Midnight X- It may have been true that no one was going to get that access but if you're a documentarian isn't that kind of access essential for a project like this? I definitely agree it should be on DVD. The occasion of me writing the review was because I picked up an excellent boot of it. I don't know what the fuss would be to put the movie out and use The Lost Performances as an extra.
Tue Oct 28, 2008 2:52 am
a great post likethebike
like the post
Sat Nov 01, 2008 10:07 pm
Great post, bike..BRAVO..!
Sat Nov 08, 2008 3:20 am
A great piece of writing by likethebike. For example:
The arrival of Elvis Presley in town is an event of towering importance. This is a factor the rock histories miss when they dismiss Elvis as “irrelevant” in this period. By this time, Elvis had transcended chart positions, record sales and even the current music scene. He was a force of nature. One might as well call the sky irrelevant.
That's mainly the reason I visit this forum, because once in a while some inspired writing pops up.
For the ones who want to see more of EOT but can't wait for an official deluxe (?) release, the bootleg 2dvd release "EOT - Through My Eyes" is worthwile, indeed. If you can find it somewhere, get it, it's put together very nicely.
Mon Feb 16, 2009 5:55 pm
well, a member her on this forum claims to posess all the rights for ontour, he/she goes by the name of iplayastrat...