Believe it or not, January 8, 2010, marked the seventy-fifth birthday of the late Elvis Presley. So, in honor of the event, the folks at Warner Bros. have released a flock of his movies in a big, seventy-fifth anniversary, multi-disc box set as well as this 1972 documentary film on DVD and Blu-ray.
How much you like the Blu-ray disc of "Elvis on Tour" will probably depend on how much you like Elvis in the first place. The movie basically follows the singer around from city to city on his '72 tour, the King trying to repeat the success found in "Elvis: That's the Way It Is" a couple of years earlier. Unfortunately, MGM and the filmmakers--directors Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel--weren't able to capture the same kind of magic found before. Instead, what we get is a fairly mundane, even sluggish rehash of Elvis's songs, which he must have performed about 8,000 times by then, and some uninspiring backstage business.
Elvis, as you know, underwent a series of changes in his career. Early on, of course, he concentrated on his singing, performing all over the country and on television. But Elvis still found much time for motion pictures, and from 1956 to 1969 he made a whopping thirty-one films. Then, as he got older, he returned to the stage, primarily Las Vegas, and in his performances donned the more-flamboyant outfits we'd all probably like to forget. The simple country crooner became the Liberace of rock-and-roll stars. In "Elvis on Tour" we see the singer just a few years before his untimely death in 1977.
The filmmakers use a lot of split screens in the documentary. You remember how popular split screens were with documentarians in the Sixties and early Seventies, especially. It seems as though the filmmakers were trying their best not only to duplicate the success of Elvis's previous documentary but to make another "Woodstock" as well. They didn't succeed. The multiscreen effect--with two or three different screens showing at once--had pretty much worn out its welcome by then, and today it merely dates the movie. Besides, there is often not much going on in any of the screens, and at times the screens are all showing the same shots, anyway.
The movie takes us on a fifteen-day tour, mostly on the East Coast but taking the singer as far West as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The film splits the content of the documentary almost evenly between the singer on stage performing and the singer behind-the-scenes conducting his everyday life on tour: Elvis getting on and off planes, in and out of cars, chatting with colleagues, singing gospel songs with friends, and pushing his way through adoring crowds. None of this is very revealing or very appealing.
Which leaves the songs. As I say, Elvis by this time had probably performed them thousands of times each, and it shows. He sometimes looks downright bored on stage. Flashbacks to his early days only emphasize how different he had become in only about fifteen years or so, from a trim, energetic young man to a tired, heavy, often sullen middle-aged man.
The other thing about the songs is that nowhere does Warner Bros. tell us what they are. The scene selections on the disc have no captions for song titles, nor is the Blu-ray Book of any help. There are listings in the book for all the songs Elvis performed during the filming in various cities, but no index of how to get to any one of them in a hurry. It points out that this movie is not really like a record album, where the listener might want to hear favorite songs. It's a documentary movie, after all, and the music is almost secondary to the filming of events.
The fact is, I found "Elvis on Tour" a rather sad document. By 1972 the man appeared to have aged twenty years since his last movie in 1969, and the outrageous costumes his handlers (or whoever) forced him to wear looked ridiculous. His hair by this time had developed a life of its own, resembling a huge, elaborate, hairy football helmet; and it was all he could do to walk on stage with the weight of the sequins, jewels, belts, bracelets, necklaces, rings, capes, and whatnot he lugged around with him.
Maybe Elvis had a right to act bored and unhappy in his final years. Show business is a tough job, no matter how glamorous it seems. Then, too, he could probably barely hear his own voice on stage for all the screaming in the audience; you have to wonder if anyone really cared anymore what he sounded like. "Elvis on Tour" documents a lost talent, a sad life in decline.
Warner engineers use a single-layer BD25 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the documentary in its native aspect ratio, 2.40:1. What you have to remember, though, is that this is a documentary film above all. It doesn't look as good as most feature films, despite its 35 mm presentation. Much of the footage looks very soft, often very grainy. The image doesn't look particularly well defined, either, even in high-def. Colors are OK, however, natural if sometimes veiled. This is probably about the way the film looked in theaters in 1972; just don't expect videophile quality.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound reproduction is certainly dynamic enough, with a wide front-channel spread, a reasonably clear midrange, and a decent bass response. That said, the sound is also somewhat forward and occasionally too bright, with little activity in the rear and side speakers. If you don't mind what sounds like ordinary stereo, you will no doubt find the soundtrack pleasing.
The primary extra in the package is the package itself: a forty-two-page, hardbound Blu-ray Book containing text and pictures. You can read and look at it when you're not watching the movie. Or instead of watching the movie. On the disc itself we get mainly the motion picture; plus twenty-six scene selections; English as the only spoken language; French, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Turkish, Romanian, Norwegian, Danish, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
My guess is that "Elvis on Tour" may appeal most strongly to dedicated, die-hard Elvis fans and not necessarily to people only casually interested in the man's music. The documentary is not all that original, inventive, or creative, and the singing is mostly routine. Still, it's fascinating in a way to see the singer live and get a feeling for the excitement (and boredom) of the road. Maybe not for an hour and a half, but, well, let's say of minor interest.