Thoughts on Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Released in America only, on HBO. The above film clip is a promo put together by this author using clips from the documentary.)
Bicycle Rider: just see what you’ve done
There are seven basic types of story: The Quest; Rags to Riches; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Rebirth; Tragedy; Overcoming the Monster. The saga of Elvis Presley contains the first six in that order, but sadly the seventh act was denied him and us.
Director Thom Zimny has attempted to do justice to the Presley story over the course of a newly-released two-part documentary entitled Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Taking the viewer through the singer’s forty-two years in the space of three and a half hours, this is by necessity a picture painted in broad strokes but one which manages to tell the tale with reasonable accuracy and ample spirit.
It is structured similarly to Peter Guralnick’s two-part written biography, using Presley’s army stint as a dividing line between his unprecedented rise and slow fall. Documentary writer Alan Light undoubtedly knows the intricacies but, when faced with time restrictions, was required to cut the finer points which must have been as infuriating for him as it is for the deep fans.
The genius of the documentary though, is in its decision to present Elvis Presley to all viewers in a new and unexpected fashion. For the devotees this is realised through the constant use of new film (professional and amateur) and studio outtakes: it keeps the faithful on their toes and creates the impression of seeing and hearing Elvis anew.
This is why Zimny insisted on using the alternative Aloha, the handheld “Trilogy” and “Never Been to Spain”, the “Burning Love” rehearsal, the “If I Can Dream” outtake, the off-air segments from ’68, the non-masters of “Lonely Man”, “Hurt”, “Suspicious Minds”, “Loving You”, and even (I think) outtakes from “The Truth About Me”. It is a deliberate and clever approach which was much appreciated by this writer.
For the causual viewer the trip is just as surprising: it’s no accident that the first picture we have of Elvis after the titles is of the man himself in 1969 at his absolute physical peak dressed only in shorts diving into a swimming pool — This is Elvis? Really? Wow! Where’s the fat guy in a jumpsuit? There’s no “Jailhouse Rock”, no “The Wonder of You”, no “Crying In The Chapel”, no “Blue Suede Shoes”, and no a lot of other stuff too. This is partly to do with time restraints but it’s also a conscious decision to show the less-known and less-appreciated side of the story.
The film favours home movies and behind-the-scenes clips over super-glossy Hollywood celluloid in an attempt to remove the albatross of iconography from Presley’s story. The flickerflicker of an old-time projector is occasionally heard as it shows grainy film of Elvis relaxing or rehearsing in happier times, segueing into the sound of a playing card catching on bicycle spokes as a pre-teen dungareed Elvis rides around Tupelo and Memphis in a recreated scene, showing how even at a young age Elvis was searching — looking and listening for emotional connection through faith and through music, sometimes both at the same time. The bicycle rider acts as a motif for The Searcher and appears several times as a linking device.
Zimny also uses a number of other creative devices to tell the story. There are no talking heads, instead he relies upon dozens of audio interviews with relevant parties (family, friends, musicians, observers, writers, disciples). Most of these are well used, but the contributions of Red West and Tom Petty are outstanding and reek of integrity and wisdom; West as someone who knew Elvis inside out and Petty as a musician chased by the same demons as his hero.
There is considerable and understandable emphasis given to Presley’s early career, and Zimny takes great pains to demonstrate Elvis' absolute devotion to gospel and blues and to destroy any suggestion of cultural appropriation. It also clarifies just what is was that the young Elvis did — breaking down racial barriers through the use of music and performance, delivered with grace, excitement and sensuality, ushering in the modern cultural era.
Actually, the production as a whole is beautifully and sensibly balanced allowing thirty minutes of air time for each of the six major musical phases of his life: Growing up in Tupelo and Memphis; Sun Records; The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years; The Early to mid-Sixties; The Comeback; The 1970s.
The anchor point for the production is the 1968 TV Special and the narrative jumps forwards and backwards to that show to illustrate or reinforce various points. It works for the most part and even when it doesn’t, the joy of seeing Elvis at the apex of his powers justifies its use.
There are echoes of Presley’s long-rumoured autobiography, Through My Eyes, when the camera slowly zooms in on photographic portraits, and there are several poignant moments as we are allowed to wander Graceland like Marc Cohn’s ghost of Elvis, looking at the knick-knacks, furniture and ephemera — we can look but we can’t touch, and it’s surprisingly moving.
There were a number of other points that stirred me, among them being the time the young Elvis talked about the material gifts he’d been able to buy his parents (in that moment one can hear 100% the reason he was so driven during the mid-50s); Petty’s heart-breaking summation of Elvis’ decline (“I think he just gave up”); and the sight of the Searcher’s rusty old bicycle, dismantled and chained up at the back of a dark garage — unused and unwanted, signifying the stagnation of Presley’s creative impulse.
There’ll be talk of it not being as detailed as The Beatles' Anthology, but Beatles fans might similarly complain that they don’t have as succinct and viewable a film as The Searcher. A casual fan might give three and a half hours, but not ten.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher is an enjoyable, honest, graceful and involving piece of work. Is it perfect? No. But find me a product that is.
It is aimed at the heart as much as the head and I can live with that, because that was where Presley did his best work.
For right or for wrong, the story will not be better told in my lifetime.