Elvis on Tour (1972)

21 Sep

Yes, he's starting to go to seed a little at this point, but The King is as riveting as ever.

More concert film than documentary, “Elvis on Tour” is light on offering real insight into Elvis’ life. And, I suspect for most people, the music is not what you typically think of as Elvis music; these concerts feature him performing a lot of covers, a handful of new songs and a scant few of his classic hits. What’s surprising is how little any of this matters. Elvis Presley is perhaps unparalleled as a performer, and this film illustrates that beautifully.

“Elvis on Tour” chronicles four stops along Presley’s 15-city April 1972 tour. While much of the film is devoted to concert footage, there are enough  interview segments, off-stage moments, and historical montages to sustain interest throughout the film. The pacing of the film is quite good; the concert sequences are judiciously interspersed with other footage, whether documentary or montage, and the audience never gets too settled into any one mode.

What you really want — and what you completely get — with “Elvis on Tour” is a look at what it would’ve been like to see Elvis perform, which is an entirely different thing than simply hearing his songs. If you are an Elvis fan, as I am, you will probably enjoy this. A non-fan may not be as enthralled.

Elvis’ sense of responsibility to his fans permeated the entire film. You can somewhat sense that The King may have tired of playing the same songs and going through the same motions night after night, but he wouldn’t dare let his fans down. If I learned anything from the documentary portions, it is that the entitlement felt by fans toward their celebrities is no worse now than it has ever been. Fans in the early 1970s may have been a bit more polite than they are now, but they were still demanding, still had definite expectations and still felt as if they were owed something by those they lauded. Presley is smart enough to know this and so he plays all those songs and kisses all those mad women who make a dash for the stage to appease them. It struck me that, perhaps at this point in his career, he was more giving fans what they wanted instead of pursuing his own passions.

No one person should have so much charisma. Imagine if he'd wanted to be a politician instead of a pop star.

The way Elvis managed to straddle the line between sex and salvation undoubtedly had much to do with his lingering appeal. In the early 1970s, after the Summer of Love, Elvis was still performing to sold-out arena crowds all over the country. I imagine that his penchant for soulful renditions of gospel songs and patriotic anthems mixed with just enough pelvis thrusting and “Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love” numbers was the perfect elixir for America’s more conservative set. With all the attention given to hippies and the Haight-Ashbury crowd, it’s all too easy to forget that not everyone was fleeing from the Mom, baseball and apple pie ideals of yesteryear. Many of the faces in the crowd are older ones, folks in their 30s or maybe even 40s who grew up Elvis fans. And some of the arenas, while still large, are in smaller towns. Where once Elvis had been deemed dangerous and unseemly, he now presented a safe sexiness when compared to the wilder youth movement. I can’t think of a modern performer who has a foot in both worlds in quite the same way Elvis managed. I’m not sure if Elvis had grown up and was returning to his roots somewhat at this point, or if maybe the gyrating lothario persona was never really him, but in this film he seems most at ease when he’s off-stage singing old gospel tunes with his band.

One final aspect this film highlighted for me was how very alone Elvis seemed at this point in his life. True, this was just a 15-city tour, but even amongst those traveling with him, he seemed closed-off. He was handled, not included. He seems to try to connect with the band and his backup singers, but no true bonds ever seem forged. A few scenes depict a cacophony of voices and activity surrounding him while he looks out a window, alone with his thoughts. Now, this film doesn’t speak to his home life or his relationship with family or friends, but I felt quite sad watching Elvis become the sideshow act in his own life. People treated him mostly like an attraction, and he had to recognize that, but he is never once shown saying an unkind word or being anything but accommodating. He certainly dealt with the overwhelming pressure of being one of the world’s biggest celebrities, and yet he conducted himself with grace and respect.

Perhaps that was The King’s best performance. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

Elvis on Tour“: Rated G. Starring Elvis Presley. Directed by Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge. Written by Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge. Cinematography by Robert C. Thomas. Martin Scorsese billed as Montage Supervisor.

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