Friday, January 9, 2015

Hail and Happy 80th Birthday to the King! :: A 30 Vidcap Look at Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge's Elvis on Tour (1972)

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"My daddy had seen a lot of people who played guitars and stuff and didn't work. So he told me, you should make up your mind about either playing guitar or being an electrician. I never saw a guitar player that was worth a damn." 
XXXXXxxxxxxxxxxxxxxXXX --- Elvis Presley
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Digging into the production history, turns out no one was really all that interested in making Standing Room Only, later retitled as Elvis on Tour. Presley was lost in a funk of denial and a spiraling depression over his separation and eventual divorce from Priscilla. Filmmakers Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge had just barely survived a similar documentary on Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971), and frankly, they weren't all that impressed with Presley's Vegas act. Presley's record company, RCA, was looking for any excuse to get Colonel Tom Parker out of their hair and to let MGM deal with him for awhile. And the Colonel, as usual, stuck his nose into everything, making demands, wanting to gut all of Martin Scorcese's carefully crafted montages out of the picture because he felt they dated his waning cash-cow as an old-timey novelty act. (Apparently, Parker was really incensed over a sequential kissing sequence poking Presley's film career right in the eye.) The Colonel even went so far as to try and schedule a televised concert special to torpedo the film's release. Luckily, Parker demands were summarily ignored and he was persuaded to push the live (via satellite) Aloha from Hawaii concert special to the following year. 

I think 1972 truly was the beginning of the end for Presley, professionally speaking. It's fascinating to watch the decline from the '68 Comeback Special to That's the Way It Is (1970) to Elvis On Tour. Don't get me wrong, though teetering on the brink of self-parody at this point, the man was still wailing to the rafters to great effect and much to the collective audiences delight. Me included. And Abel and Adidge's "keyhole" look into the process -- from the travel, to the entourage, to rehearsals, to the staging, to the shows, to the winding down, to the impromptu gospel jam sessions, are completely mesmerizing in the multiple split-screens and triptychs. As are Scorcese's contributions that add to the overall buzz of the proceedings, which netted them all a Golden Globe win for Best Documentary for 1972. It was also the top-bill in an amazing double-feature that played these parts back in 1973.

And the documentary is a total blast. Kinda like thumbing through a bunch of old weathered and fading Polaroids. It's a genuine pleasure to watch this man perform on any stage or setting. Here, they cover fifteen cities in fifteen days. (Read that again.) It's also fun to watch James Burton (lead guitar), Jerry Scheff (bass) and especially Glen Hardin (piano) and Ronnie Tutt (drums) working hard. Not to mention the beautiful tones of The Sweet Inspirations, Kathy Westmoreland, and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps backing the Big E up. Pure alchemy, folks. 

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of escorting Mama Kelso to Omaha for a special screening of Elvis on Tour to mark Presley's 75th Birthday. (It was her big-horn era records and influence that turned me into the fanatic I am today.) The theater was packed, most of them women of my Mama's age strata. A trio of ladies in front of us came decked out in vintage Elvis t-shirts and Official Fan Club buttons and pennants. And as the concert film got rolling, this crowd of compressed estrogen went completely bananas. You're damned right I was a hooting and hollering right along with them. It was one of the greatest, most baffling and immersive film-watching experiences I've ever encountered. And when it ended, I found myself on my feet applauding along with everyone else. And as the closing credits rolled to the dulcet serenade of Elvis covering "Memories", one of those gals in front of us said "Oh, now you're gonna make me cry." Me, too, ma'am. Me, too. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.

Elvis on Tour (1972) Cinema Associates :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Robert Abel, Pierre Adidge / AP: Sidney Levin / D: Robert Abel, Pierre Adidge / W: Robert Abel, Pierre Adidge / C: Robert C. Thomas / E: Ken Zemke, Martin Scorcese / S: Elvis Presley, Vernon Presley, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, The Sweet Inspirations, Kathy Westmoreland

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