You don't have to be an Elvis fan to be thrilled by this treasure of a documentary depicting the elder Elvis, in the twilight of his career - the jumpsuit, the rhinestone belts, the rings, the cape, the sideburns, and the choral grandiosity of his performances - revving it up on the quintessential road trip rock doc.
Elvis on Tour (1973) dir. Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel
By Alan Bacchus
I admit to never really being a fan of the music, the blues-based early rock tunes that is, because, well, I was always a Beatles man. And so watching Elvis on Tour is like being introduced to the King of Rock and Roll for the first time. I found myself watching Elvis perform for an hour and a half, taking the details of his stage persona, his vocal range, musicianship, audience rapport etc. It's also like watching Elvis doing an impression of someone else’s impression of Elvis. The wild gestating arms and legs, the aforementioned jumpsuits, the snarling Tennessee accent all suddenly seem accessible and authentic. This is the real deal, the real Elvis, not shown as camp or through the filter of nostalgia, but Elvis as it happened.
And it’s a thrill.
It’s 1972, Elvis, the King himself, embarks on a 16 city, 15 day tour of heartland America with documentarians Adige and Abel following him on and off stage. It was a different time back then. The venues were more off the beaten path with most of the footage used from performances in Richmond Virginia, Hampton Roads Virginia, and Greensboro NC. And despite being the King, it’s a mostly no frills stage set up (imagine what kind of visual spectacle he could generate in today’s demand for old rockers) Instead it’s the phenomenal swagger and performer of Elvis providing the pizzazz.
Elvis classics such as Don’t be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and even ‘new’ ones (for 1972) Burning Love and A Big Hunk of Love are played. Elvis’ voice is fantastic projecting his unique mix of blues, gospel and country to the devoted fans. In traditional fashion the directors go behind the scenes and watch the movements of Elvis back stage, through hotels, and in the public over these 15 days.
The attention around Elvis is still astonishing and his ability to project an air of modesty and humbleness shows why he was so adored. Of course, Elvis died 5 years later and who knows what kind of pills he was on at the time, but for these 15 days he seems to be in the best shape of his life. In several scenes we watch Elvis, at an age close to 40, being chased through the streets and stands by grown women, like the Beatles in A Hard Days Night.
It’s all part of the filmmakers’ theme of fan appreciation. Abel and Adige continually cut between Elvis performances and the fans, an over the top exaltation of the King before it skyrocketed to the level of big business and industry that it is today.
The film is a visual delight as well. The directors, influenced by the success of Woodstock, used the same split screen effects to show the Elvis from various angles at the same time and to allow the viewer to take in the atmosphere of the entire concert experience all at once. Martin Scorsese who cut some of Woodstock even supervised the ‘montage’ sequences in this film – a number of scenes which show the rise of Elvis’s career as well as the fast paced lifestyle he led back then.
There’s a distinct use of repetition, specifically the song ‘Hail Elvis’ used to bring Presley to the stage in each show. We hear the song half a dozen times, effectively conveying the constant grind of the rock and roll touring lifestyle.
Despite all the fan exuberance, the film ends on a very eerie and somber credit sequence – a tone of quiet melancholy, as if Elvis was already dead, or was going to die soon. But of course, Elvis was very much alive when the film came out, and so it’s a little spooky, but surprisingly emotional when watching it today. With Elvis on Tour being his last film, it now serves as the unintended swan song for one of music’s greatest performers.