“There was a point when we realized the music was getting lost,” said (director Thom) Zimny. “As a filmmaker, it was a challenge to look at Elvis’ story differently and not repeat something that’s already out there.” He and Priscilla worked together to center the story on the musical innovation of Elvis. “It was a long journey,” she admitted. “And we wanted it to be the definitive story of the man behind the music, who was truly an artist.”— HBO’s Documentary Website
Viewing “Elvis: The Searcher” for the first time was certainly an enjoyable experience for a life-long Elvis fan like me. On April 14, HBO debuted the complete 3-hour, 19-minute documentary, with a single bathroom break between parts 1 and 2. It is far and away the best documentary film ever made about Elvis Presley. But is it the “definitive story” Priscilla Presley sought? Probably not, but then the producers were obviously hampered by the wide scope and complexity of Elvis’ career. Time constraints meant they had to confront the same choices that I did in writing this review—“What was too important to leave out, and what was too marginal to put in?”
“Elvis: The Searcher” packs in quite a bit of visual and audio content as it follows Elvis’ musical career from his youth in Tupelo and Memphis through the Graceland Jungle Room recording sessions in 1976. Most veteran Presley followers will find little they didn’t already know in the film’s recounting of Elvis’s long and eventful career. The documentary’s achievement, rather, is in how it tells that story, which it does in a most unique and creative way.
Instead of just following along the chronological procession of “Elvis: The Searcher,” let’s take a look at some of the film’s elements that make it so interesting to watch.
• What was Elvis “searching” for?
Priscilla delivers the opening line of the documentary. “Elvis was a searcher; it’s a part of him that never left.” Director Zimney said he picked up on that in Priscilla’s interview and decided to use it as the film’s title. “We felt it really exemplified Elvis' musical exploration, where he's pulling from all different influences to create his own sound. It was a theme we found ourselves returning to again and again in our discussions, so it just felt right for ‘The Searcher’ to become the title.”
One subtle way the “searcher” theme is emphasized in the film is in the recurring aerial image of a solitary bicycle rider peddling down a woodland dirt road. The rider appears at times when the film touches on critical creative moments in Elvis’ life, such as his return to civilian life after his army service. Another “searcher” connection comes at the end of Part 1, when Elvis’ recording of “Lonely Man,” containing the lyric line, “Searching, always searching, for something he can’t find,” plays over a visual montage.
The “searcher” theme surfaces again each time Elvis needs to refocus and recharge his career, as in 1968 with his “Comeback Special.” The film also cleverly uses that event as a recall element to prevent monotony in its chronological flow. “It was either the beginning or the end of his career,” Priscilla says of the ’68 special. Since it was actually both, a reminder of where he had been and a promise of where he was going, the mid-career NBC show was a perfect fit for the film to momentarily jump off the story line here and there. The opening of “Elvis: The Searcher” jumps forward in time to Elvis singing “Trouble” in the ’68 special, and at the film’s end, it jumps backward to Elvis singing “If I Can Dream” from the same show.
• An impressive cast of characters provide commentary
Breaking from the usual documentary formula, “Elvis: The Searcher” has no single narrator. Instead, more than two-dozen “experts,” we’ll call them, trade off providing commentary on Elvis’ career and the cultural backdrop in which it was played out. Priscilla is included, of course, along with musicians, historians, writers, recording producers, and record label executives. Jerry Schilling and Red West represent Elvis’ “friends and associates.” Elvis’ voice is also heard in exerts from past interviews, as is Colonel Parker’s.
Despite the lengthy and diverse cast of “experts,” one can’t help but wonder why some others were not included. Elvis’ daughter is one of them. Although she was only eight years old when her father died, Lisa Marie certainly could have added to the discussion. Also, Peter Guralnick, the author of Elvis’ definitive biography, is not heard. As noted earlier, though, decisions had to be made.
An inspired decision made by director Zimney was to not show video of those speaking. All audio comments are made over a visual backdrop of still photographs and video snippets. The speaker’s name usually appears on the screen so that the viewer is aware of who’s talking. On HBO’s website, Zimney explained why he decided to use this unusual documentary approach. “I wanted it to feel like ‘The Elvis Dream,’” he said. “And cutting to talking heads, I feared, would take you out of that dream.”
• Petty and Springsteen stand out in the film’s commentary
Most of the commentary throughout the film is fairly basic, providing historical details and offering opinions and judgments that have become standard fare in the Presley press through the years. Occasionally, though, one of the “experts” voices a particularly insightful comment or paraphrases a commonly accepted point in a unique manner. Most of these come from other entertainers who could relate to Elvis’ creative interaction with his music. Tom Petty, who died in October last year, is the star of the film’s cast, with Bruce Springsteen a close second. Petty’s sincere assessment of how history should view Elvis Presley is heard in the opening scenes of “Elvis: The Searcher.”
“God bless him. He was the light for all of us. We all owe him for going first into battle. He had no road map and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. We shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off a great artist by all the clatter that came later. We should dwell in what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music.
Springsteen also provides some discerning commentary. Note how he takes the viewer right into the moment with Elvis in the studio at Sun Records:
“The way he was recorded by Sam Phillips is tremendously pure. There’s a looseness, as there usually is in your early recordings. You’re excited about sudden discovery of self, of your powers, your abilities, and what you can do with them. You hear performers in the thrall of the beauty of invention, not knowing quite where there’re going to go, not knowing exactly what there’re doing. Just discovering it and doing it literally as the music is being played. You’re out on the frontier, and it’s a very pristine and exciting place to be.”
• Poverty … a powerful early influence on Elvis
The body of the documentary opens with a lengthy examination of the influences, both cultural and musical, that would later coalesce in Elvis’ music. The historians are useful here in describing the social landscape in the South during Elvis’ youth.
Poverty’s impact during his early years in Tupelo is stressed. Priscilla says, “Elvis never forgot the experience of living in poverty, ever. It stuck with him his whole life.” It’s a theme she comes back to later in the film. According to Priscilla, the purchase of Graceland in 1957 represented the rise out of poverty that Elvis had longed wanted for his family. “Elvis never wanted to go back to the days when they struggled, the days of poverty,” Priscilla reaffirms. Early on, then, the viewer begins to realize how Elvis’s deep dread of poverty muddied the water of his creative instincts over the years and how Colonel Parker’s moneymaking talents appealed to Elvis’ deepest fears.
• Colonel Parker enters the picture
With Colonel Parker, director Zimney faced a troublesome subject in “Elvis: The Searcher.” Zimney could have followed popular perception and painted the Colonel a self-serving destroyer of Elvis’ creative dreams, but he decided to take a more balanced approach to Elvis’ manager. The Colonel gets some credit for using his contacts with TV execs and RCA to move Elvis into the big time. “Colonel was a father figure,” Priscilla says. “There’s no doubt about that, and he felt Colonel knew what was he was doing. I mean, Colonel brought him to where he was. Sam Phillips couldn’t do what Colonel Parker did. He was bright enough to know that.”
On the other hand, Parker is criticized for limiting Elvis’ access to music by running all of his client’s music through Hill and Range publishing. Other “experts” accuse the Colonel of preying on Elvis’s vulnerability for his own benefit, running Elvis’ movie career onto the rocks, and preventing Elvis from touring overseas. A couple of times, the Colonel is allowed to defend himself in his own words. Once he claims that, although he negotiated Elvis’ movie contracts, Elvis still could have refused to do the films the studios offered.
It’s Tom Petty who asks the critical question about the relationship between Elvis Presley and Tom Parker.
“This is what we’ll never understand. Why did Colonel Parker have this kind of influence over him? Why was he knowingly able to humiliate himself for this man or for the money promised by this man?”
• Presley’s movies get “the bum’s rush”
“Elvis: The Searcher” has very little to say about Elvis’ movies. For the most part, the “experts” characterize Presley’s Hollywood career as like a car careening down a dead end road in the middle of a vast creative wasteland. Priscilla provides the only positive comment by saying that the studios at least treated Elvis with respect in the early days.
Again, it was Tom Petty who provides the most pertinent commentary on Elvis’s film career.
“The movies were very harmful to his image as an innovator, as a great musician. He’s very talented; he’s very present. It’s an incredible image of him, but where he had a nice start in the movies and did some creative things early on and you could see there was great potential for this guy, there was really no way for him to become the huge movie star that he would have liked to become and the Colonel keep control of it. There’s too many creative aspects going to come in, and they’re going to challenge the Colonel’s carnival mentality.”
As for his music in the sixties, Priscilla points out a creative weakness that held Elvis back. “Elvis didn’t write own songs, so he couldn’t control his career like others in the ’60s.” What Elvis needed, she says, was someone to come in with a plan of what to do next. Eventually that man was Steve Binder and his plan for Elvis was the 1968 TV special. In “Elvis: The Searcher,” the “experts” are united in portraying that show as the being a pivotal event in Presley’s career.
• A missed opportunity to expose the “Aloha” satellite myth
The film quickly moves on, taking note of the Memphis recording sessions in 1969, the triumphant Las Vegas debut the same year, and the return to touring in 1970.
With less than 30 minutes left to go, the documentary closes in on Presley’s 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” concert, a segment I’d been anxiously awaiting. Certainly the producers, who’s goal was to create the “definitive story of the man behind the music,” would not give credence to the phony legend that for decades has surrounded Elvis’ “Aloha” show. Surely this documentary, supported by so many “experts,” will finally set the record straight. But it failed to do so.
It started with Jerry Schilling explaining that instead of letting Elvis tour overseas, the Colonel decided to “come up with “something nobody had ever done.” I knew what was coming next. Sony producer John Jackson then repeated the preposterous Elvis myth that just won’t die.
“Instead of shutting down the idea of Elvis playing in other countries, and just sort of curtailing it for now, he actually uses it to his advantage, and creates the first ever live concert simulcast on satellite television so that people in every country all over the world can see Elvis in concert.”
Elvis is then shown shaking his head at the prospect of his show being seen by a “billion” people. “All the countries all over the world via satellite,” he muses. “It’s very difficult to comprehend.” He needn’t have worried. The broadcast was not worldwide nor did a billion people watch it. Not even close in either respect. It’s ironic that the only evidence for either claim is the say-so of Colonel Parker, hardly a trusted voice in the Presley saga. (An actual account of Elvis’ satellite show numbers is available at the link below.)
“Elvis: The Searcher” concludes with Presley’s final recording sessions at Graceland in 1976. It’s an obvious place to pull the plug, since the film’s focus is primarily on “Elvis the musical artist.” All the messy business leading up to and following his death the next year are ignored, thank goodness.
Only one more question remains needs to be asked of the producers of “Elvis: The Searcher.” Who came up with that goofy photo that was used in all of publicity leading up to the film’s broadcast? I mean, you’re trying to portray Elvis as a great musical artist, and you showcase this featureless mug shot as the film’s visual hook? Worse yet, the photo shows a brown-eyed Elvis when everyone knows he had blue eyes. That has already given life to a web conspiracy theory claiming that this is really a picture of Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’ twin brother, who this picture proves didn’t really die at birth! Thus the documentary perpetuates one myth and may give rise to another.
• The best existing film about Elvis Presley’s life and career
“Elvis: The Searcher” is certainly a very entertaining film. The director’s decision to use unseen “experts” to provide the narration keeps the focus on Elvis’ journey from start to finish. The shotgun photos and video snippets, combined with a judicious use of slow motion, zoom-in shots, and other special effects, keep the viewer’s eyes glued to the screen.
It was inevitable, though, that the producers would come up short of their goal of creating the “definitive story of the man behind the music.” Priscilla says they originally were considering a six-hour film but decided to cut that in half. That resulted in parts of Elvis’ career being left out or given insufficient coverage. For example, the year 1957, which featured three of Elvis’ biggest hit records and two of his most significant films, is completely jumped over. Elvis’ entire Hollywood career is dismissed as unworthy of being taken seriously. Also, not exposing the “Aloha” satellite myth was a lost opportunity.
In the final analysis, though, “Elvis: The Searcher” is clearly the best documentary film that now exists about the life and career of Elvis Presley. Its visual design is impressive, and its cast of “experts” provide informative and pertinent commentary throughout. The film’s wide scope brings into focus the historical and cultural landscape of the fifties, which allowed an entertainer like Elvis Presley to grow and flourish. To really appreciate all its nuances, “Elvis: The Searcher” should be viewed more than once.
HBO continues to show “Elvis: The Searcher” several times a week on its family of channels. HBO subscribers can view the film “On Demand” at any time. For now, non-subscribing Elvis fans will have to find HBO friend willing to give them access to the film. Eventually, “Elvis: The Searcher” will be available for purchase on DVD. For those who haven’t yet seen it, the wait, whether it’s days or months, will be well worth it.
In closing, I’m including a couple of my favorite quotations from “Elvis: The Searcher.” They combine to create a brief declaration of Elvis Presley’s contribution to American music and culture.
“He didn’t event rock ’n’ roll, per se. You’ve got Little Richard and Joe Turner and all those people on that tip, but what Elvis did wasn’t that. What he did is different. It’s bringing the country music in, bringing white gospel music in, and it becomes pop music.” — Tom Petty
“Elvis and Elvis’s music pointed to black culture and said this is something that is filled with the force of life. If you want to be a complete and fulfilled person, if you want to be an American, this is something you need to pay attention to.” — Bruce Springsteen
Alan Hanson | © May 2018
“In those early records, they almost knock you off your heels because all that big sound is coming from so little.”
– Emmylou Harris
"Elvis’ voice has plenty of space and beautiful geography to it.”
– Bruce Springsteen
“In those early beginning years, he had an antenna that was up and he was stealing tricks, he was learning lessons, he was bringing it all in without it seeming like he was doing somebody else’s act.”
— Warren Zanes, writer
“Elvis had outgrown Colonel Parker by this point, but he didn’t know how to cut the strings.”
— Priscilla Presley
“Scotty is brilliant, one of the great musicians of all time. Never plays unless it's necessary.”
— Tom Petty
"He simply had to believe in himself. And that’s what Elvis did. Elvis put himself forth as someone who was not a flash in the pan, but who was in a long line of a tradition American pop singers.”
“During all the years he was doing movies, you never got to see him in the moment.”
— Warren Zanes