Monday, August 6, 2007

An American Classic Returns

Out this week on DVD is the long awaited release of the David Wolper produced THIS IS ELVIS (1981), a film directed by award winning filmmakers Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt.
THIS IS ELVIS has been out of the public eye for awhile and it is a very welcome addition to the DVD market. The film, which recounts the life of Elvis Presley, received mostly rave reviews upon its initial release and played throughout the United States in the Spring of 1981. Its New York premiere happened to coincide with The Clash's famous multi-night stand at Bonds and Joe Strummer, a huge Elvis fan, had photographs taken of them in front of the THIS IS ELVIS marquee.
The film is a moving account of Presley's life that takes us from his poverty stricken Tupelo, Mississippi beginnings to his tragic death at the age of 42 in Memphis. Unlike most documentaries of this kind the film does not rely on the usual 'talking head' interview style but instead tells the story almost exclusively with clips of Presley. There are some dramatic recreations scattered throughout the film and at times an odd voice over narration by an Elvis sound alike but for the most part the film just sticks to clips of the real thing.
THIS IS ELVIS basically works as an introduction to Presley and, as Gene Siskel raved at the time, it's hard to imagine someone not being a fan after watching this film. David Wolper is one of the most famed documentary producer's in modern film and THIS IS ELVIS probably recalls his eerie THE LEGEND OF MARILYN MONROE (1964) more than any of his other works. Malcolm Leo was offered the co-directing assignment in 1979 after his work on THE HEROES OF ROCK AND ROLL (1979) had gathered so much attention. Relatively inexperienced Andrew Solt landed the other director's chair based on his fine research work for 1972's Golden Globe winning ELVIS ON TOUR.
Working with the full cooperation of Elvis Presley Enterprises, with consultation by both Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling, Leo and Solt uncovered a lot of footage that had never been seen by the general public.
Among the most thrilling aspects of THIS IS ELVIS back in 1981 was the re-appearance of some of his early tv clips. Performances on everything from The Dorsey Brothers Show to his famous Ed Sullivan appearances are still incredibly invigorating to see. One of the most noteworthy clips is an unhinged HOUND DOG from The Milton Berle Show that caused a great deal of controversy, a lot of which THIS IS ELVIS deals openly with.
The original theatrical version of THIS IS ELVIS was faulty in that it was just too short. It is simply impossible to cover a life in just 101 minutes even though the original version does the job as well as possible. The Home Video version was expanded with an additional 40 plus minutes but it unfortunately censored one scene and removed the sad ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT performance from 77 that caused many intial viewers to break down into tears upon seeing it. Both versions are thankfully available on the dvd set.
THIS IS ELVIS is not perfect. It doesn't delve deep enough into the man's musical contributions, it all but ignores his astonishing non-soundtrack work in the Sixties and takes too many liberties editing certain performances. All that said it is still a bracing and moving film that becomes positively chilling in it's last half hour where we can see Elvis slipping further and further away from us and himself.
The film's final moments with news footage of the thousands of fans gathered around Graceland the day of his funeral interposed with a powerful and majestic performance of AN AMERICAN TRILOGY from ELVIS ON TOUR is an extremely effective ending to a fine film.

The original trailer for the film featured a still photograph of John Lennon in the Seventies wearing an Elvis button and when Yoko Ono saw THIS IS ELVIS shortly after Lennon's murder she contacted Leo and Solt and commissioned them to do the equally powerful IMAGINE: JOHN LENNON (1988).
The double disc dvd set is labeled a special edition but it is pretty bare bones. Disc One contains a sharp looking Widescreen print of the original theatrical version, the film's trailer and a nine minute promotional featurette featuring Esposito, Schilling, Solt and Leo on the grounds of Graceland back in 81. The second disc contains the extended print and it is presented full screen and basically looks like a port from the old VHS copy.

I decided to highlight this release due to not only the fact that I think it is a fine film, but I also think it is a perfect introduction to Elvis Presley. An introduction that might just scratch the surface but also one that will make almost any viewer want to dig deeper.


cinebeats said...

I've only seen clips from this so I'm looking forward to checking it out.

I spent all weekend listening to Ann-Margret (including her recorded work with Elvis), Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. I was really sad to her about Hazlewood's death this weekend and one thing led to another. So much death lately is really starting to wear on me. I fear what else this year has to offer...

Jeremy Richey said...

I had no idea that Lee had passed away. That is sad news as he was such a major talent and incredible songwriter...I'll be posting a tribute later. This year is really starting to frighten me, I just can't get over all the people we are losing...

on a different note, I hope you enjoy "This Is Elvis"...and thanks as always for commenting...

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I had no idea that Lee Hazlewood had died either. I was recently listening to him and Nancy Sinatra. That's so sad. I loved his music We are definitely so many greats in film and music this year. I'm a huge fan of Elvis. I did love his stuff with Ann-Margret. Remember I did that blog on "Viva Las Vegas" awhile back. I definitely would love to see this DVD.

Jeremy Richey said...

Lee's work with Nancy Sinatra has still not been given its due and I can't imagine a Debbie Harry, Patti Smith or Shirley Manson without the amazing work they delivered in the sixties...thanks for the comments Keith...Hope you enjoy "This Is Elvis" as well.