A companion film to the concert/documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970), Elvis on Tour (1972) feels like a further effort by Elvis and his marketing machine to further prove his relevance to the youth market by reminding film audiences of his legendary performance power. Elvis spent a good chunk of the sixties in increasingly middling musical comedies that wasted his gift for soulful ballads and raw stage power, particularly when singling blues and gospel-based songs.
The '68 Comeback Special may have been the final straw for his acting career, because in the special one can see Elvis rediscovering his musical mojo, as well as reconnecting intimately with the audience. After blowing through his final three films in 1969 - Charro!, The Trouble with Girls, and Change of Habit - he returned to the concert stage, of which his Vegas shows were the central focus of the 1970 doc.
So why bother with a second film when the predecessor already gave the general public a wake-up call to Elvis' relevance?
Perhaps the 1972 film may have been a marketing ploy - a visual documentary of the King's 15 concerts over a grueling 15 days - but it also works as an amiable portrait of Elvis as prog rock, fusion, and hard rock music were battling for radio play and audience attention. Whether inspired by the success of Woodstock (1970), Elvis on Tour does deliver some of the energy that kept fans loyal to the King.
Musically, the doc's first third is the best, as it captures a performer energized by the crowd and his huge entourage of musicians, including a gospel troupe, backup singers, and a small brass orchestra. "C C Rider" starts the film (and each concert date) on a high, and it represents the King comfortably traversing into a mix of contemporary orchestral soul with sharp blues vocals.
Writer/directors Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge structured the doc as a series of impressions – the pre-show calm, the first music sets, devoted fans, Elvis hurriedly exiting the venue, limo chatter, and private jet flights to and from cities - as well as a handful of montages using stills and Elvis' Ed Sullivan appearances to show the dynamism of his youth and early, pre-Karate performance style.
There’s also a rather jarring montage of clips from Elvis’ MGM films, mostly showing the King repeating several visual gags during kissing sequences, which could’ve been dropped in favour of more concert material. (One suspects the footage was added purely to remind audiences of Elvis’ popularity in movies, even if the samplings are from the last batch of mediocre romantic confectionery.)
The vignettes and montages (supervised by Woodstock’s Martin Scorsese) show a more measured view of his fame, and even in the concert extracts there are few moments of crazed fans (except one woman who pounds on the stage during a song, and then disappears, likely pulled aside by handlers and security).
Most of the behind-the-scenes concert footage feels like functional filler and bridge material, because the filmmaker's biggest challenge (besides pleasing "Technical Advisor Colonel Tom Parker") is establishing some continuity, since a fair chunk of footage was shot to accommodate the split-screen sequences patterned - quite successfully - after Woodstock.
The doc’s final third is a condensation of a concert in Virginia, and it's meant to compliment the interspersed vignettes in which Elvis sings acapella gospel standards, meets fans, and signs their souvenirs.
Whereas the Virginia show is meant to illustrate Elvis' spiritual roots, it lacks the energy of the prior sets, and not all of his renditions are up to par. "Love Me Tender" is given a pretty hasty spin, and one senses the King gave it a quick run-through before a fast retreat to the waiting limo, and a beckoning hotel room.
Had the doc ended with more footage of Elvis singing acapella with the gospel troupe, it would've shown a man returning to the bare fibers of his musical roots - the melodically rich vocal textures and passionate lyrics - but it also would've been anti-climactic, since the film has to show a present-day Elvis drawing from all of his influences. Beneath the giant sunglasses and sequined costume was a gifted performer, but the persona of the King in 1972 had to reflect his present style and sound – Elvis apparently didn’t want the doc to include the old Ed Sullivan material - even if that included weird karate moves and hand gestures, or donning a cape and spreading it like a sparkly bat. The filmed performances do capture a generous and excited King, though, and there's no doubt he was having a blast with the large musical ensembles, which included ****.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray features a sharp transfer with dynamic sound. The stage performances are in robust stereo, whereas the documentary segments (including the acapella sessions) are in mono. (There is one studio sequence where the practice run is mono, and the full performance is in true stereo.) The production’s original sound mixers also sweetened the concert audio by creating a bit of sound design, such as adding the same pair of female fans screaming "El-ves!" over several shots.
The lack of any deleted scenes or additional concert material (as present on the 2-disc release of Elvis: The Way It Is) is slightly compensated by the booklet, which covers most of the film's production history, as well as its place in Elvis' career, just 5 years before his death. However, some fans have also reported both the BD and DVD of Elvis on Tour are missing the song "Johnny B Goode," due to rights issues, whereas the print circulating on TCM features the unedited film. (The snipping of rights-affected material also affected Elvis, John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie, with a concluding song being omitted from the DVD and Blu-ray releases.)
The remaining filmed concerts of he King were Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii (1973), and Elvis in Concert (1977), the latter filmed 6 weeks before his death.
Co-director Robert Abel also directed Let the Good Times Roll (1973) before moving into commercial production, whereas co-director Pierre Adidge directed the concert doc Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1971).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan