Posted by Susan Doll on August 9, 2010
Elvis Week begins tomorrow in Memphis, and fans and tourists are descending on the King’s city to mark the 33rd anniversary of his death with a week of concerts, movies, Graceland tours, and informal get-togethers. This year would have been Elvis’s 75th birthday, adding a special note to Elvis Week. To honor—and exploit—both occasions, Fathom Cinema Events presented a special showing of the concert documentary Elvis on Tour on July 29. At 7:00pm in select theaters around the country for one showing only, Elvis on Tour graced the big screens for the first time since 1972. Having seen the film several times and written about it in various books, I thought I knew everything there was to know about this documentary, but seeing it on a huge screen in a theater made it a new experience. In addition, the film was preceded by a new introduction that provided enlightening details about the production, the filmmakers, and Elvis’s response to their approach.
Elvis on Tour chronicled the singer’s short but grueling 15-city tour in the spring of 1972. The tour started in Buffalo, New York, and came to a sold-out conclusion in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Filmmakers Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel succeeded in capturing the hectic pace of Elvis’s touring schedule through their choice of filmmaking techniques, which are much more noticeable and effective on the big screen. The first documentary to capture Elvis on stage, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, had caught Elvis’s 1970 summer appearance at the International Hotel, including rehearsals in Hollywood. Director Denis Sanders shot a straightforward concert documentary, showing Elvis on stage primarily from the perspective of the audience. While Sanders’s well-crafted film featured some stellar cinematography by Lucien Ballard, it lacks the energy of Elvis on Tour. In the early 1970s, Presley was still excited about his return to live performances, and his concerts exuded energy and electricity, not only from Elvis but also from the 30 or more musicians and singers that backed him. In the intro that preceded Elvis on Tour, long-time Presley associates felt that Adidge and Abel captured the King on stage more effectively than Sanders had in Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.
Adidge, whose specialty was sound recording, and Abel, a documentarian, chose to shoot their film verite style, which dominated nonfiction filmmaking in the 1960s and early 1970s. Often described as “a fly on the wall” style, cinema verite filmmakers preferred minimal interaction with their subject during shooting. With as few obtrusive techniques as possible from the filmmakers—meaning no voice-over narration, no intertitles, no formal interviews, no staged scenes—the subject is presented naturally and without artifice. The original verite filmmakers from the 1960s preferred direct sound, hand-held camera, and minimal editing to achieve an ideal goal of capturing the “truth” of their subject with minimal manipulation by the filmmakers. However, younger generations of directors who picked up the style became less rigid in their approaches. Adidge and Abel shot Elvis on Tour using seven 16mm cameras, with cameramen positioned backstage, on stage, in the wings, and in the audience. Much of the footage was hand-held, and the cameramen were adept at anticipating how and where their subject was going to move onstage. In addition to moving his hips, winding his arms, and executing karate moves, Elvis prowled the stage constantly while singing. Even when chatting with the audience between songs, he was always moving—a bundle of nervous energy wound tight as a drum. The hand-held camerawork complemented Elvis’s perpetual motion.
The technique that most caught my attention was the use of split screen, which was much more noticeable and effective when seen on a huge screen in a theater. A trendy technique of the era, split screen had been used in Woodstock as well as several feature films, including The Boston Strangler. Throughout the new introduction to this special screening, Elvis’s former associates stress that Adidge and Abel intended to uncover and explore the “real Elvis.” The split screen technique allowed the filmmakers to creatively convey and reveal various aspects to Elvis and his music in different ways. Sometimes, the selection of images in the split-screen panels was based on the song. Each song on the tour was shot at least five times, and during some numbers, the panels feature Elvis singing the same song in separate concerts in different cities. The split screen not only amplifies the energy radiating from Elvis as he performs but also suggests that he sang the song with the same passion and conviction in each concert, at least at this point in his career. At times, the editing between the three panels is accelerated, jacking up the level of excitement and energy while maintaining a rhythm that fits the music.
At other times, the split screen depicted the interaction between Elvis and the many musicians and singers that backed him on stage. The big dramatic sound that defined Presley in the 1970s—when he was billed as the World’s Greatest Entertainer—included the musical contributions of a soulful African American girl group called the Sweet Inspirations, a gospel quartet known as the Stamps, and a rock group dubbed the TCB Band whose members were hand-picked by Elvis. Lead guitarist James Burton, known as the Master of the Telecaster and a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2001, shaped the TCB Band’s Southern-flavored sound. Through split screen, Elvis is shown giving cues and minimal direction to the band, the Sweet Inspirations, or the Stamps. Sometimes, Elvis and a musician or singer will merely glance at each other as a private message or joke subtly passes between them. The split screen technique illustrates the close connection between Elvis and the members of his musical entourage.
Other split screen sequences in Elvis on Tour offer insights of a different nature. Over the years, I have read about—and written about—the impact of gospel music on Elvis, but one split screen sequence revealed the significance of gospel in a way that words just can’t express. Elvis liked to stop the show and ask J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, a gospel group who was part of his on-stage back-up ensemble, to sing the hymn “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” When not touring with Elvis, the Stamps sang four-part harmony a capella in the old shape-note style of the early 20th century. For “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” Presley turned the show completely over to the Stamps, who sang this hymn in that style. In split screen, the Stamps are shown performing the song in one panel, while Elvis stands quietly listening to them in another panel. And, he is truly listening. With his head bowed, he silently mouths some of the lyrics and smiles slightly, getting lost in his own private reverie. The split screen technique reveals gospel to be more than an influence on his music. Elvis was born and raised in the poor South, and gospel music is part of the culture. Listening to the Stamps sing the music of his childhood calmed or soothed him, reducing his nervous energy, at least temporarily. As they say in the South, it “called him back home,” meaning it reminded him of his childhood, his religion, his culture, his identity—it reminded him of Home with a capital H. For the observant viewer, it’s a glimpse of—but not into—the private, personal Elvis.
Gospel music pops up again in another sequence, which is one of my favorites. In an informal pre-show rehearsal, Elvis, members of the TCB Band, the Sweet Inspirations, and the Stamps hang loose. A bit nervous, Elvis begins to sing the gospel song “I, John” to break the tension and pull the gang together. Everyone knows the lyrics to the hymn as, one by one, each begins to sing in harmony. Not only is gospel music key to Elvis’s sound, but it is also the thread that binds together the seemingly diverse musical elements of his act—the rock band, the African-American backup singers, and the old-time gospel quartet.
In addition to the creative editing within the split screen sequences, Elvis on Tour includes several montages that sum up Presley’s career in earlier incarnations. In 1972, when this film was released, footage of Elvis from The Ed Sullivan Show had not been seen since 1956-1957 when it first aired. The filmmakers wanted to remind audiences of Elvis’s cultural impact 15 years earlier, so clips from the Sullivan show are edited together in briskly paced sequences.
Elvis’s film career is briefly referenced in a montage of kisses from his 31 narrative movies. The effect is a light-hearted recapping of a part of his career that Elvis detested. Elvis on Tour offers no critical condemnation of his movie career, though the new introduction suggests that the filmmakers may have wanted to go in that direction. Apparently, in a series of interviews with Elvis without the participation of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, Presley revealed his loathing for his movies, declaring, “Hollywood never understood me.” In the introduction, former Presley associates—who, like their friend and employer, disliked Elvis’s movies—make a big deal out of these candid interviews. However, in the documentary itself, very little from these interviews is used, and nothing critical about the movies is directly stated. I suspect that in keeping with Parker’s strategy of maintaining a positive spin on all things Elvis, he nixed any negative commentary on the movies.
In charge of the montage sequences was a young filmmaker named Martin Scorsese. Those interviewed in the introduction refer to Scorsese as a bundle of energy who never seemed to sleep. Apparently, he worked on the montage sequences of Elvis on Tour during the day and cut Mean Streets at night. The editing of this film in the split screen and montage sequences is instrumental to its success and undoubtedly contributed to its Golden Globe win as best documentary. I wonder if contributing to the editing of Elvis on Tour and Woodstock gave Scorsese the itch for rockumentaries, which he later scratched with The Last Waltz, Shine a Light, and his upcoming documentary on George Harrison, Living in the Material World.
Last year, I wrote Elvis for Dummies, which gave me an opportunity to interpret and analyze the King’s career and star image, putting them in a socio-historical context. I included a few paragraphs on Elvis on Tour, but I wish I had been able to watch the film on the big screen before writing the book. After seeing the documentary the way it was intended to be seen, I noticed more, provoking me to think harder about the images, songs, and techniques.
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