Posted by Susan Doll on August 17, 2009
Being an Elvis Presley fan and author, I feel obligated to acknowledge him in mid-August, which is the anniversary of his death. In Memphis, the annual commemoration of his life and career known as Elvis Week just ended, while TCM devoted yesterday to Elvis’s acting career. I thought I would cap off the festivities with some attention to the documentaries about the 20th century’s most famous singer. Whether watching them for research or entertainment, I found that these films either put Presley in a context to explain his career or presented him onstage in way that captured his charisma and energy.
If you are an Elvis fan, I am sure you have seen these films, and I would be interested in knowing your favorite documentaries; if you are not a fan, you might enjoy them because of the historical context of the content or the craftsmanship behind the filmmaking techniques.
Elvis ’56 covers the young Presley in 1956, the year he went from a regionally based singer to a national sensation. Directed by Alan and Susan Raymond, the documentary begins in January 1956, when Elvis made his first recordings for RCA and concludes in January 1957, when he made his third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In between, it offers in-depth coverage of Elvis’s major tv appearance on Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show, and the first two Sullivan shows.
Elvis ’56 is a conventional-style documentary, combining television clips of Presley’s performances, news footage, still photographs, and audio interviews to chronicle the growing controversy over his hip-swiveling performing style, his effect on the teenage girls in the audience, and the scandal over his second appearance on the Berle show. The well-written voice-over narration is spoken by Levon Helm of the rock group The Band. His Southern drawl makes the text sympathetic to Elvis’s problems with the critics and public outside the working-class South. Used to the Tin Pan Alley tradition of pop music, mainstream, middle-class audiences in the urban centers of the North and East took an intense disliking to his musical sound, which was an integration of regional Southern styles. While teens couldn’t get enough of Elvis, the press and the parents revealed their disdain for Elvis’s Southern background with ugly accusations about his “gyrations,” critical comments about his “dirty” hair and unusual clothing style (which they attributed to the bad taste of working class Southerners), and rude remarks about his accent.
Most of the photos used in Elvis ’56 were shot by Albert Wertheimer, who snapped close to 4000 photos of Presley just as the young singer was breaking big. In his candids, Wertheimer captures an energetic, charismatic, handsome Elvis enjoying the exciting life that was opening up to him. Wertheimer’s crisp, high contrast style is suited to the “realism” associated with the documentary mode, making his work the perfect choice to depict Elvis’s life from this period.
The strength of Elvis’ 56 is the way it places Elvis within the context of the 1950s. Instead of relying on a nostalgic tone to chronicle the decade – which is the way middle-class boomers like their 1950s – the documentary offers an overview of the complacency, conformity, and conservatism of the era. The look and sound of Elvis Presley did not fit into that version of American life. My favorite sequence occurs when footage of Perry Como from a typical 1950s variety show is contrasted with Elvis performing on Stage Show in early 1956. Poor Perry Como. In the leisurely singing style he was famous for, the pop crooner smiles into the camera and sings the nonsensical “Hot Diggety Dog Diggety,” while Elvis bolts onstage and whips the girls into a frenzy when he sings “Baby, Let’s Play House.” The contrast helps illustrate why Elvis was such a shock and why the mainstream public felt he was a dangerous influence – something that is hard for people to realize now. While I think his spontaneous performances on Stage Show are the most raw, his June 5, 1956 appearance on The Milton Berle Show is the single most controversial performance of this period. Elvis introduced his version of “Hound Dog” that evening, which he had not yet recorded. In this particular performance, he slowed down the final verse to a raunchy, bluesy beat. He was singing without his guitar that night, so his movements were more noticeable and suggestive. At certain points, he got up on the balls of his feet, then thrust his pelvis several times to the beat. In case viewers don’t immediately get what is being suggested, the filmmakers slow down the footage so the provocative moves are more obvious. Small wonder everyone from television critics to the PTA to religious leaders were railing against Elvis the Pelvis the following week.
Elvis ’56 was produced long after Elvis’s death, so perspective and context are an important part of its appeal, but Elvis: That’s the Way It Is was made during a high point of his career. This film chronicles Presley’s 1970 summer appearance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, and the immediacy of the excitement generated about Elvis’s return to concert performing is what makes this documentary fun. Elvis began rehearsals July 5 at the MGM studios in Hollywood, where he is shown working out the kinks with his band and mastering new material for the act. The singer rehearsed around 60 songs with the band, though most of them did not make it into the show or the documentary.
The original documentary, directed by Denis Sanders, includes footage of a massive promotional buildup in Las Vegas, which is intercut with the rehearsal footage. A film crew was sent to Luxembourg to shoot an Elvis Presley convention to illustrate the excitement of fans. Elvis’s engagement at the International began on August 10, and the cameras were on hand on opening night. Sanders shot the singer’s best performances throughout the engagement. Dressed in a simple, white jumpsuit, accented with fringe instead of rhinestones and gems, Elvis is clearly at the top of his game. The film is structured so that the rehearsals, the scenes of preparation, and the shots of enthusiastic fans build anticipation and excitement for the main event, which consists of Elvis performing his best material
A couple of years ago, TCM showed a “special edition” of Elvis: That’s the Way It Is that differed from the original. Rick Schmidlin, who had worked on the restoration of Orson Welles’ original vision for Touch of Evil, revamped Elvis: That’s the Way It Is by including additional footage of some of the songs from various angles, plus some new footage. While the special edition is devoted to Elvis on stage, and I can see the appeal of that, I prefer Sanders’s cut to Schmidlin’s. Sanders had won an Academy Award for Best Documentary for his film Czechoslovakia 1968, which is also on the National Film Registry. Tinkering with an award-winning filmmaker’s work after he is dead just bothers me in principle. But, more specifically, I missed the sequences of the Luxembourg fan convention and the promotional blitz in Las Vegas. The fan convention was shot in a cinema verite style, which was the vogue at the time, and I liked the way that the verite style is like a snapshot of this particular moment in time. Also, the original structure depends on anticipation and build-up to the big event of Elvis on stage, which was captured beautifully by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard. The sense of anticipation that we are about to see something special and exciting is gone.
One of Ballard’s most acclaimed films is The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah. This ground-breaking western is justifiably famous for its climactic sequence, which features flamboyant editing in a montage style. This style of editing consists of a barrage of shots to depict an action, making the editing more obvious and the action more stimulating. Ballard and director Sanders approached the editing to Elvis: That’s the Way It Is in a similar way in order to capture the excitement of Elvis and his dramatic music. However, Schmidlin’s additions destroyed the pacing that made the concert footage dynamic and exciting. The editing just isn’t as sharp or precisely paced as the additional footage. Sometimes less is more.
The second documentary to capture Elvis in performance focused on his road show, not his Vegas appearances. Elvis on Tour chronicled the singer’s extensive 15-city tour in the spring of 1972. The tour started in Buffalo, New York, and came to a rousing conclusion in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Filmmakers Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel succeeded in capturing the hectic pace of Elvis’s touring schedule through a montage sequence of cities visited during the tour.
Costing $600,000, to produce (not counting Elvis’s fee of $1 million), Elvis on Tour recouped its production costs after three days in the theaters. Documentaries are rarely major box-office draws, but this film was a financial success. Critically acclaimed as well, Elvis on Tour won a Golden Globe as the Best Documentary of 1972. Much of the creative success of the film was due to its effective editing style, which relied on a split-screen technique to convey the excitement of Elvis in concert. Multiple images of Elvis performing were shown on the screen simultaneously, a technique that had been used in Woodstock. The series of scenes from Elvis’s movies plus the succession of clips of the different cities visited on the tour also depended on precise editing for its visual impact. In charge of these montage sequences was a young filmmaker named Martin Scorsese.
Finally, I have to include This Is Elvis on my list, because watching the film in the theaters in 1981 led me to write about it for a graduate seminar I was taking at the time, and that led me to choose Elvis Presley as the subject of my dissertation.
Produced, directed, and written by Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, the documentary combines news footage, television performances, still photography, and re-created scenes to tell the story of Elvis’s life and career. Though a documentary, the film is structured like a narrative, opening with the shocking news of the singer’s death and then flashing back to his childhood years in Tupelo, Mississippi. This Is Elvis shamelessly uses re-creations of real-life events as its primary technique, which drew the wrath of purists at the time. In 1980-81, cinema verite was the dominant mode of documentary filmmaking, and verite’s fly-on-the-wall approach, which strives for the least amount of filmmaker interference as possible, is the polar opposite of re-creations.
Four different actors portray Elvis at various points in his life, including his teen years when he sings in front of his high-school class for a talent show, his mature years when he is hospitalized for numerous ailments, and on the eve of his death at Graceland. Other events and phases of his career are depicted through news footage, home movies, concert material, and still photography. This Is Elvis so skillfully interweaves its elements that it is difficult to separate what has been re-created from actual documentation. Authentic photos from the past are combined with simulated news footage to illustrate the same event.
You can guess that the filmmakers were highly criticized for manipulating the material and for combining the real with the re-created. But Solt and Leo were less interested in depicting the real Elvis Presley than they were in interpreting the life story of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll to capture the enormity of his popularity and influence. A wonderful example of the film’s power to mythologize is the concluding sequence, which depicts a triumphant Elvis in concert edited together with shots of his funeral procession winding through the streets of Memphis. Elvis is performing “An American Trilogy” in the concert footage, and as he sings the final words “His truth goes marching on,” he drops to one knee and uses his arms to spread out his cape as though it were a set of angel wings. The filmmakers show the moment in slow motion, a spellbinding touch that enhances the importance of the gesture. Intercut with footage of Elvis’s funeral procession, the image takes on a divine connotation. This Is Elvis does not reveal the man behind the myth, which is precisely why I like it so much. Instead, it spins the myth that has been wrapped around the man.
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