You remember Winston Smith, don’t you? Sure, he’s the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984, but do you remember what he did for a living? He worked in the so-called “Ministry of Truth,” changing history by rewriting newspapers and books and any other media that needed updating to reflect the prevailing mindset of Oceana’s totalitarian regime.
Not unlike Ozzy and Elvis.
By now you’ve probably heard about the “reissue” of some of Ozzy Osbourne’s back catalog earlier this year. Problem is, they are not reissues at all. These new versions of the old albums have had the original Bob Daisley bass and Lee Kerslake drum tracks removed; the remastered songs now feature members of Ozzy’s current touring band. Apparently this was done because of ongoing legal disputes over royalties among these former bandmates.
Regardless of motive, this transgression of history is wrong, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining.
As is what was done to the documentary, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is when it was re-edited and released on DVD about a year ago. While the Ozzy debacle is annoying and typical of the corporate entertainment industry, the new Elvis movie is even more disappointing because its ruination was carried out in the name of the fan. Yeah, you and me and every other music geek were catered to when they unearthed the extra thirty minutes of footage and remastered the sound to create this concert film. Only problem is, the original movie was a heck of a lot more than a concert.
That’s the Way It Is was a strange document of a strange time, something of a foil to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was a true documentary—of the entire process of putting post-Comeback Special Elvis Presley into the Las Vegas show scene, a fascinating idea for 1970, especially considering E’s only other appearance there, in the late-1950s, had bombed. (Remember too, this was long before a stint in the desert on the road to eternal life in Branson, Mo., was the natural washed-up pop star progression we think of now.) Sure, on outward appearances That’s the Way It Is was a concert flick, but there was a lot more to the goofy film and its oddball interviews with unnamed and frequently creepy fans and hangers-on. Most of this fell to the cutting room recycle bin for the digital release in favor of more concert footage, little of which adds much of anything to the film as a film. No, the new footage amounts to more rocks for the fan cum crackhead, while eliminating much of what worked in the original film—the reflections of Elvis in the eyes of all who beheld him. The effect leaves Elvis looking as two-dimensional as his postage stamp.
The most important legacy of my much-played VHS dub of That’s the Way It Is is that even the non-Elvis fanatics I’ve shown it to have come away with a better understanding of why this era of Elvis’ long and tumultuous career was perhaps his best. As the availability of the original version of the film wanes, as old videotapes get eaten by dirty players or thrown away after garage sales, this very real historical document will disappear. Sure, we’ll have many more copies of a fancy new DVD to replace it, but without the historical context of the original edit there will be little to learn from it.
Reissues, remastering, lost footage, unreleased tracks—they’re all worthy endeavors, but full-scale revision leads us down a dangerous path indeed. Remember Winston Smith?