In the late ’70s, producer Andrew Solt and his partner, Malcolm Leo, sold a special to ABC, “Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which aired in February 1979).
“We needed the rights to show The Beatles, Stones, Elvis, Dylan, etc.,” explains Solt. “And the hardest nut to crack in those days was the Elvis estate. We were able to have a meeting with Colonel Parker and got him to agree, and Fox negotiated the final deal to include about 10 to 12 minutes of Elvis material and do a mini-bio on him. The Colonel got paid a bunch of money, and he was happy with it.
“We had various meetings with Colonel Parker,” Solt continues. “His office was only two blocks from us. He came to like us and was trusting of us. And I said to him at one point, ‘Colonel, why don’t we one day do Elvis’ story?’ And he said, ‘No, the time is wrong. But that seed was planted.’”
And the ultimate result of that seed was the documentary “This Is Elvis,” released in 1981. The film has been issued on DVD for the first time, part of an ambitious program of new releases and reissues that covers nearly all of Elvis’ films, so you can upgrade or fill in holes in your collection. Here’s a recap, focusing on new-to-DVD releases and new features on the reissues.
“Jailhouse Rock” (1957): One of Elvis’ two best films (the other is “King Creole”). Elvis is Vince Everett, an ex-con who becomes a singing sensation, and the production number for the title song is the best of any Elvis film. The film has a remastered soundtrack in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and mono, unenlightening commentary by Steve Pond (author of “Elvis In Hollywood”), and a bonus featurette on the “Jailhouse Rock” number. There’s also a photo booklet.
“Viva Las Vegas” (1964): I’ve always found the plot of this film to be somewhat lackluster (Elvis is Lucky Johnson, a race car driver stuck in Vegas when he loses the money needed to fix his car). But there’s no denying the chemistry Elvis has with one of his best ever co-stars, Ann-Margret, and their dance numbers together (“C’mon Everybody,” “What’d I Say”) are terrifically exciting. Ann-Margret’s “Appreciation” is another high point, as is Elvis’ rendition of the title song. There’s a remastered soundtrack, a commentary track by Steve Pond, and the featurette “Kingdom: Elvis In Vegas.” Also included are five collectible cards, though the ones in my copy were from another film, “Speedway.”
“Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” (1970): This concert film was released in a new edit in 2001 that cut footage of some admittedly eccentric fans in favor of performance footage. But that misses the point that Elvis fandom is as key to the Elvis phenomenon as the music. So, it’s nice that this set includes both the 1970 film and the 2001 edit. Bonus material includes a restoration feature that was on the 2001 DVD and 12 new outtakes, which confirm that the final films did indeed have the best footage. There’s also a photo booklet.
“This Is Elvis” (1981): Despite the occasional re-creations, this is a very engaging documentary that covers the breadth of Elvis’ career with some great clips. But the shambolic “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in the 1981 version was deemed too embarrassing and was cut from the 1983 home-video version — which also included 40 minutes of additional material by way of compensation. This set has both versions, a bonus featurette about Graceland and a photo booklet.
The following films are new