There have been dozens of books and movies made about Elvis Presley, some at least somewhat accurate to his life, others wildly exaggerated.
But most, good and bad, tell the same basic story — the boy from Tupelo who gets discovered in a tiny recording studio in Memphis, shakes up the world with his rock ‘n’ roll, goes on Ed Sullivan, becomes the biggest star in the country, is drafted and sent to Germany.
When he returns, manipulated by his manager Col. Tom Parker, he stars in a raft of crappy movies, has a brief comeback in the late '60s and early '70s, keeps touring, gets fat and, in 1977, dies, disillusioned and irrelevant at age 42.
There are plenty of other scurrilous details that work their way into the Elvis story framework — from his prescription drug use, to his bizarre meetings with The Beatles and President Nixon, and his spiritual quest.
Enter “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” a two-part HBO documentary. It airs at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Begun by Priscilla Presley along with Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ friend and confidant since 1954, “The Searcher” aims at a different target, eschewing the cliched story to put the focus on the man and his music.
“We wanted it to be the definitive story of Elvis Presley, the man behind the music, who was truly an artist,” said Priscilla Presley, Elvis' wife from 1967 to 1973. “He just did what he believed. It’s as simple as that … The college professors have ways of trying to explain Elvis, they are so off … He was the searcher, just like the title. Thank God for Sam Phillips, who recognized what he had.”
Director Thom Zimny, recruited to the project after making a series of acclaimed documentaries about Bruce Springsteen, echoed Priscilla’s comments.
“There was a point where the music was getting lost,” Zimny said. “As a filmmaker, it was a challenge to look at Elvis’ story differently and not repeat something that’s already out there. It’s about an artist.”
Zimny, Priscilla Presley and David Porter of Stax Records fame, who spoke about Elvis’ knowledge of and commitment to black music, made their comments at a March South by Southwest panel discussion the day before the premiere of “Elvis Presley: The Searcher.”
Seen in its entirety with a short intermission on a big screen, “The Searcher” is entrancing, pulling viewers into Elvis’ life and his world and, through vintage photos and footage, enveloping them in that world for nearly four hours.
“I wanted it to feel like the Elvis dream,” Zimny said.
Indeed it does — in large part because Zimny departs from documentary convention and shows no “talking heads” of the 40 or so people interviewed for the film.
Instead the voices of Springsteen, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and Robbie Robertson talk about Presley’s influence and importance, hovering over pictures of Presley on stage or in the studio.
Along the way, historians reflect on the era, often over photos and film clips of Memphis in the '50s and '60s. Porter and Elvis expert Ernst Jorgensen discuss the music.
Priscilla, who met Elvis in Germany in the late '50s, joins Schilling, longtime “Memphis Mafia” member Red West and late guitarist Scotty Moore in talking about what it was like to be there with Elvis on stage, in the studio and at home.
Elvis himself speaks up in a few old interviews — which show up on screen — as does part of a discussion with Phillips, who, in 1954, recorded the 19-year-old truck driver in his Sun Studios, immediately pressed “That’s All Right” onto a disc and got it on the radio, jump-starting the rise of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Surprisingly effective, Zimny focuses on a still image of Elvis as a song begins. As it plays, the camera gradually zooms in toward Elvis’ eyes, seemingly looking deep inside him to where the music emanates.
Those songs, available on a three-CD boxed set along with score elements from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and originals of songs Presley covered, like “Mystery Train,” cover not only about 20 of his hits but gospel numbers, movie songs and a few rehearsal versions.
Structurally, “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” takes his story from his southern roots through the Army in Part 1. Part 2 opens with his return to the U.S. and his TV collaboration with Frank Sinatra and closes with his final recording in the “jungle room” at his Graceland mansion in 1976.
The first half of the film is, like the rising career it follows, exhilarating. The second part, unavoidably, sags, particularly at the end where Elvis is in decline.
“People tried to do things,” Priscilla Presley said. “People tried to help. But you did not tell Elvis Presley what to do … It is hard to watch.”
The final segments of “The Searcher” aren’t easy. But, as a whole, it is infinitely rewarding — by far the best documentary about Presley, the only film I’ve seen that puts the focus on the man and the music and, in doing so, shows why Elvis stands as the most important musician of the rock era.