The DEC4 Podcast Episodes I and II - Elvis That's The Way It Is
With expert analysis from Gary Wells
A very warm welcome to the companion newsletter for the first two episodes of the DEC4 Podcast hosted by George Fairbrother - our deep dive into the classic 1970 MGM cinema concert documentary, Elvis That’s The Way It Is. Our ‘expert witness’ for these episodes is Gary Wells, whose website, soulrideblog.com, Your Home for Vintage Leisure, is loved by thousands of readers in over 100 countries. You can also hear his regular segment, Words With Wellsy, on the Cocktail Nation Podcast.
Elvis That’s the Way It Is documents the leadup to Elvis’ third season at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, and also takes us into the showroom for the first few performances. The movie came about at a time of huge upheaval in the world of entertainment. In Hollywood, the old studio system had collapsed, and the once dominant MGM, now under the harsh regime of James T Aubrey (the Smiling Cobra), was selling off its own history, including much of the backlot and countless props and costumes from classic films, to survive.
Meanwhile Kirk Kerkorian, rather conveniently in the context of the film the owner of both the International Hotel and MGM, was corporatising Las Vegas, and building up his hotel and leisure interests while winding back MGM’s movie output. Kerkorian (1917-2015) was the son of Armenian immigrants, and sold his air charter business and began buying up Las Vegas real estate in 1962. According to his BBC News obituary, he was well known for buying and then selling MGM three times, making a profit each time. According to the same source, his net worth had fallen from USD 16 Billion prior to the 2008 financial crisis to USD 4.2 billion at the time of his death.
One of the influential people behind the movie was (uncredited) producer, Herbert F Solow, who passed away in November 2020, aged 89. He was an MGM vice-president, in charge of the studio’s US and UK motion picture and television production. Prior to his tenure at MGM, he had worked for Lucille Ball at Desilu and had successfully pitched Star Trek to NBC, along with launching other iconic television franchises.
In the summer of 1970, Elvis was riding an exhilarating wave of renewed commercial and artistic success. Having escaped his declining movie career and returned to live performance and non-soundtrack work in the studio, he was once again making some great music, topping the charts, and was already the number one live act in Las Vegas. He was about embark on a relentless schedule of sold-out stadium tours throughout the country, which would, for better or worse, continue right up to his death. Some audience shots from the the first night of his September (1970) tour, in Phoenix, Arizona, are shown during the movie’s opening credits.
Director Denis Sanders (1929-1987) was a double Oscar winner, (short subject and documentary) and later film academic. In 1962 he directed War Hunt, which was very well received and featured Robert Redford in his first credited role (technically not his debut as we mentioned in the podcast), but was a cinema debut for Sydney Pollack and Tom Skerritt.
“What we’re trying to do,” Sanders told Jerry Hopkins for a feature in Rolling Stone, “is capture Elvis the entertainer, from the point of view of the fans, the hotel, the city, the audience.” The director also predicted that, “the film will make a fortune…but it will also change things stylistically.” It would be the first documentary to be shot in Metrocolor and Panavision, and to have a budget exceeding one million dollars.
In addition to the rehearsals, we are given an insider’s view of the extensive preparations taking place at the International Hotel, then under the quiet authority of widely admired hotel president, Alex Shoofey. Starting as a junior bookkeeper, he had worked his way up and had run the Flamingo, the Sahara and then the International Hotel. It was Alex Shoofey himself who had convinced an initially hesitant Colonel Parker to sign a long term contract with the hotel, following opening night of Elvis’ first engagement in 1969.
Hotel publicity director Nick Naff, whom we also meet in the film, told Jerry Hopkins, “Elvis changes the entire metabolism of the hotel. And he is singularly significant in one regard; there is a constant occupancy. Tom Jones, they fly in, see the show, fly out again. Elvis has such a following, so may fans; for him, they fly in, check in, and stay the month.” During Elvis’ engagement the previous February, the maître d’ and showroom waiters alone split $300 000 dollars in tips for the month.
One of the quirkier aspects of the film are the segments featuring interviews with selected fans, one of whom The Village Voice rather unkindly described as ‘possibly the creepiest young man ever to appear on film’, although in fairness, his contribution was articulate and relevant. The Voice described director Denis Sanders as a ‘sociological sharpshooter zeroing in on every conceivable variant of American Gothic’.
Another contributor to the movie is Ann Moses, at that time editor of teen fan magazine Tiger Beat and also correspondent for New Musical Express. She had also been an invitee for the intimate performance segments of Elvis’ 1968 ‘comeback’ television special. As of 2021, she is active on social media and has provided some fascinating insights into Elvis That’s the Way It Is on her website, and you can link to that article here;
The latter part of the film takes us into the showroom itself and features performances from the initial shows of the season. Gary talks about Elvis’ recent number one single, Suspicious Minds, and how it took on a whole new identity in its live interpretation. Gary also explains why he finds the concert close so moving.
One musical highlight we shamefully neglected to mention in the podcast was I Just Can’t Help Believin’, which had been recorded around the same time by BJ Thomas and of which Elvis’ own version would also be a single and appear on the That’s The Way It Is album. Since we recorded the podcast, we learnt that BJ Thomas sadly passed away (May 29th 2021), at the age of 78.
There’s a lot more to Elvis That’s The Way It is than meets the eye. We hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as we did. What do you think of this original version of the film? What were your highlights? Please comment below. Selected feedback will be read out and discussed during future podcasts. If you would prefer to comment privately, you can do so here.
Research Notes and Suggested Further Reading, Viewing and Listening;
Gary’s articles on Elvis are highly recommended. Link here; https://soulrideblog.com/category/elvis-presley/
Denis Sanders’ Los Angeles Times obituary (1987); https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-12-18-mn-19800-story.html
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (A great book by Peter Biskind on the people behind the ‘New Hollywood’ and there is also a documentary film)
Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; the Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick - his two-volume, forensically researched biography.
Elvis and the Memphis Mafia by Alanna Nash
Las Vegas Stripped Bare - a fascinating BBC World Service radio documentary from 2017 which can be streamed or downloaded for free, and takes a close and honest look at Las Vegas, past and present. It appears that Adele Edelman, the Las Vegas limousine driver who hosted the documentary, sadly passed away in 2018. Link here; https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p055jw30
For those with an interest in Elvis’ Las Vegas and road tour dates, stats and schedules, stage jumpsuits, concert reviews and just about anything else to do with Elvis’ professional life on the road, Francesc Lopez’s website and quick reference databases are an essential resource. Link here; www.elvisconcerts.com
Here’s a link to Jerry Hopkins’ Rolling Stone article from September 17th, 1970; https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/dont-you-go-winnin-elvis-no-oscars-39761/
Cricket Coulter - A brief YouTube clip from Elvis Week 2011
Here is a 2002 interview with Lionel Hudson at elvisnews.com
(George Fairbrother and DEC4 Publishing are not responsible for external content)
Acknowledgements and Thanks
Thanks to Steve Collins for technical support, and to Detlef, Michael, and the lads from Gainesville for writing and performing the DEC4 theme music. The DEC4 Podcast is brought to you in association with travel site tellmewhere2go.com and the Armstrong and Burton book series.