Elvis: That's the Way It Is June 11, 2016
Elvis Presley is so far above the rest of us average Joes that the humanization that becomes him in 1970 documentary That’s the Way It Is throws us off. Because we like to think of him as a musical god and because it’s easier to see the image of the man and not necessarily the man behind the image, imagining Presley as someone with emotions, someone with fears, someone with flaws, doesn’t much cross the mind. His tragic death in 1977 was perhaps the most sizable indicator that he was, in fact, a being who walked the Earth just like the rest of us. But as I listen to favorites like “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain,” I’d prefer to think that he floated.
Since That’s the Way It Is smudges the glamour he mostly was able to hide behind during his heyday, we aren’t so much inclined to think of him as an icon until the last twenty-minutes of the film, when concert footage makes way and we get a taste of his era-defining showmanship. But before that electrifying stretch lets its presence be known, surprising is the naturalistic approach documentarian Denis Sanders utilizes.
Alternating between casual interviews with small-time fanatics and coltish glimpses into the rehearsal process, it depicts Presley’s preparation for his long-awaited return to touring after nearly a decade of making films and headlining one-off performances. The pressure is colossal, but support is strong and Presley seems to be thrilled to harken back to the days of his early career.
Sanders’s no-frills rendering of the film’s events effectively turns Presley into the human we never much thought him to be, so much so that, as we hear obsessed fans droning on and on about how they “love him like a brother,” we come to have a hard time understanding why they’d worship him in the first place. This repercussion is especially influenced by the way Sanders only supplements commentary with scenes of rehearsal that are so lax that we might consider our Elvis to not take his job very seriously — the film’s final moments are what remind us why we love this man so deeply.
And I like that Sanders treats the artist like an up-and-comer; he sees past his campy façade and is able to evoke the idea that Presley’s habits of joking around during serious times is more a result of vulnerability than it is of selfishness. That’s the Way It Is is not the thorough rock doc that Runnin’ Down a Dream is — it feels more like a well put-together compilation of material than it does a cohesive movie — but it gives us fascinating glimpses into the life of rock’s biggest name at what might have been among the most susceptible moments of his career. It’s mesmerizing stuff.
So it does a lot of things quite well, but it also has its issues, its rushed, strung-together quality being the most prominent. Though Sanders is skillful in taking on the role of a fly on the wall, he’s not so dynamic when it comes to making a concert seem cinematic; the photography doesn’t capture the energy of the stage, and the sound is about as fine-tuned as fan footage. But I’m not so sure I’d take That’s the Way It Is any other way: realism is perhaps the best mood to induce when following around an untouchable legend for a short period in his life. If only it were more than just informal. C+