“Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” showing now on HBO, is a new two-part, three-hour documentary directed by Thom Zimny that stands apart because it focuses on what made Elvis popular to begin with – his talent, his performance style and his music.
It foregoes the more outlandish aspects of Elvis’ life that typically provide fodder for Elvis biopics – peanut butter and banana sandwiches, the 1970 spur-of-the-moment visit to President Nixon, shooting out television sets – in favor of the influences and career decisions that made Elvis explode onto the scene in the 1950s, and the lasting talent that embedded him forever into the cultural landscape.
Countless biographical movies and documentaries have been made about Elvis. The best of the bunch to date was the first one, the 1979 made-for-TV movie “Elvis,” starring Kurt Russell, produced by Dick Clark and directed by John Carpenter. It has finally been eclipsed.
Society is so far removed from the 1950s that it is almost impossible to understand now the shock value of Elvis’ arrival into living rooms across America on TV shows hosted by Milton Berle, Steve Allen and, most famously, Ed Sullivan. The clips have been repeated so often that they lose their impact. “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” comes as close as possible to reminding us what a tsunami Elvis created.
Part One of the documentary spends considerable time on Elvis’ blending of African American blues and spirituals with white country & western and gospel quartets, all of which he witnessed firsthand and loved growing up in Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. His infusion of black influences into his unique brand of music caused fear and worry across a white America just on the cusp of the civil rights movement.
The documentary is aided immensely by commentary from a number of contributors, including audio clips from Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, and Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ controversial manager, both now deceased. Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife who is more often regarded as his widow, and close friend Jerry Schilling (along with the late Red West) also offer poignant reflections.
But it is the running commentary by Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty that carry the most weight. Both unabashed fans, Springsteen and Petty provide unique insight as they remind us that as the first real rock star, Elvis had no template to follow, no mentors to turn to, no trail already blazed.
It is sad and moving that providing commentary for the Elvis documentary was one of the last things Petty did before his own unexpected death last October. But it’s Petty who best sums up the shock and awe of 1950s audiences to Elvis on television, and the fact that the crude method used to preserve those shows – kinescopes rather than video or film – have lent them a supernatural quality through the years.
“His body picks up all the intricacies of the rhythm. It’s so lighthearted, but it’s so deep and meaningful at the same time,” Petty says. “It’s such a magical thing to see, because of the kinescopes — just the way it distorts the image. There’s some beautiful thing going down there. And it must have been really incredible to see it with no warning.”
“To see it with no warning.” It is impossible, today, to see Elvis with no warning because, as Mojo Nixon observed in song, Elvis is everywhere.
Also noteworthy is the appreciation for Elvis as an artist and innovator beyond the 1950s, both in the range and power of his voice and his performance style. Elvis retreated into mediocre movies in the 1960s while the Beatles led the British invasion, but he returned in triumphant fashion in a 1968 NBC television special that serves as a connecting thread revisited several times in both parts of the documentary.
After that, he made more great music (“Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto,” “Burning Love,” etc.) and returned to live performances, rewriting the rules in Las Vegas and selling out the largest indoor arenas and auditoriums in the U.S. for the next eight years.
Even Elvis’ version of “American Trilogy,” often derided by snide critics, is given its due, with Petty noting, “It’s really beautiful,” and served to demonstrate why Elvis wanted his 1970s shows staged with multiple backup singers, horns and strings.
But his frustration at not touring overseas (blamed on his manager’s then-secret status as an illegal immigrant) and his growing dependency on prescription drugs led to a final year of ambivalence and a premature death in 1977.
Near the end, Elvis recorded a song called “Hurt,” which opens with an almost primal scream. The film uses it as a coda that both attests to the lasting power of his voice and his frustrations as an artist. It is of interest that both Elvis and his Sun Records contemporary, Johnny Cash, recorded songs with identical titles at the end of their lives, very different compositions but meaningful in indistinguishable ways.
The documentary ends with Elvis’ performance of “If I Can Dream” from the ’68 special. But it’s a different take than the one most commonly seen. Instead of ending with audience applause, it concludes with silence, the camera lingering on Elvis as he glances around and takes a couple of steps back. Zimny’s camera pulls away, showing the image on a small TV set at Graceland, and then pulls back even further to view the gates of Graceland as they close.
Four decades after Elvis’ death, Mr. Zimny has finally made a documentary worthy of him.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.
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