Friday, April 20, 2018
Elvis the Artist: The 'Searcher' Finds 'Rescue' in New HBO Documentary
By John Beifuss
April 9, 2018
Has any entertainer — or is "entertainer" too limiting? — been as scrutinized, analyzed and idolized as Elvis Presley?
He was the King of Rock and Roll.
"A remarkable American original," according to biographer Peter Guralnick.
"The greatest cultural force in the 20th century," said composer Leonard Bernstein.
"A real decent, fine boy" noted Ed Sullivan.
"Like Lord Byron in the wax museum" sneered a Time magazine critic, in 1956.
Eighty-three years after his birth in a two-room house in Tupelo and 41 years after his death in his 23-room mansion in Memphis, Elvis continues to attract new labels, new identities.
The latest — coined by Priscilla Presley and embraced by HBO — is an appellation that emphasizes the thoughtful artist over the show-biz icon.
Debuting at 7 p.m. (Memphis time) on Saturday, April 14, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" is an ambitious, two-part, 206-minute documentary produced for HBO with the cooperation of Graceland, which opened its archives to grant the filmmakers access to material that never before had been shared with the public. (One example is an audio recording of Elvis' beloved mother, Gladys Presley, warbling a hymn.)
Intended to be definitive, the film also features "never-before-seen photos and footage from private collections worldwide," according to HBO.
Of course, the movie will be repeated many times in the coming weeks on various HBO networks. In addition, a companion soundtrack album will be released this week on vinyl and compact disc in several configurations, including a 3-disc "deluxe" CD that collects 75 songs, including familiar recordings, from-the-vault rarities and original versions of songs Elvis covered, plus selections from the soundtrack's original score, composed by Pearl Jam's Mike McCready.
"The idea is to rescue Elvis from the cartoon image," said director Thom Zimny, 52, recruited for the project on the strength of his work with Bruce Springsteen on the documentaries that accompanied reissues of "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The River."
"The hope is that people will get a sense of the real Elvis, because the voices in the film come from a place of truly loving the music of Elvis," said the New York-based Zimny, in town for a March 17 preview of the documentary at The Guest House at Graceland, the 450-room hotel that opened in 2016 on Elvis Presley Boulevard, just north of Elvis' former home.
"There's not a moment of pure celebrity," Zimny said of the participants in the documentary. "Everyone in the film, you had to feel that this person was never the same after listening to Elvis. Their life changed because of Elvis."
In much the same way, most of the people at the preview screening in the Guest House auditorium were devoted to Elvis. The audience primarily was made up of invited Elvis fans, seated among such notables as the filmmakers; Priscilla Presley; longtime Presley associate Jerry Schilling; Stax songwriter David Porter; Jerry Phillips, the son of Sun founder Sam Phillips; and other significant Presley-connected figures and scholars.
Schilling, 76, originated the idea of the documentary, along with Priscilla Presley. (Both are credited as executive producers.)
"I knew there was a human, special story about Elvis that had not been told on film — an untold story of Elvis' creative desires," Schilling said.
"I was with him when he said he would do 'A Star as Born' with Barbra Streisand," added Schilling, mentioning ambitions that were thwarted by Presley's manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker. "I was with him when he said he wanted to go on tour overseas,"
Such frustrations — epitomized by the substandard material that characterized Elvis' "destabilizing" movie career, to borrow a term used by musician Warren Zanes in the film — make up one of the documentary's storylines.
"I just don't think you can have a creative genius like Elvis and keep giving him the same stuff," Schilling said. "Elvis always was searching for different things in his life."
However, the movie emphasizes Elvis the Productive over Elvis the Stymied. As Zanes also says in the documentary: "He can pull in a wide range of genres, and they all come out Elvis."
Schilling said he and Priscilla Presley spent seven years trying to find sympathetic collaborators and a proper platform for the project. After connecting with Zimny and his team, HBO made sense as a destination.
Not only had the network hosted some of Zimny's previous films, but HBO has become known for its deep-dive musical biographies, including Martin Scorsese's "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" and Alex Gibney's "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All."
Written by Alan Light, "The Searcher" presents Presley's life more or less chronologically, but presumes that the viewer already is familiar with much of the Elvis biography. It emphasizes career choices — the first trip to Sun; the early RCA era; the post-Army releases; the embrace of gospel; the so-called "'68 Comeback Special"; the Chips Moman-produced Memphis recordings; the1970s return to live performance; the final 1976 "Jungle Room" sessions — over domestic activities.
"I looked at him as an artist, and left behind the gossip and lifestyle details," Zimny explained. "There's no talk of the 'Memphis Mafia' or him giving away Cadillacs."
Narration is provided through archival sound bites and new interviews with Elvis associates, researchers, collaborators and fans, including Springsteen — "You could take the boy out of Memphis, you really couldn't take Memphis out of the boy," the Boss observes — and the late Tom Petty, one of several people recorded in the nick of time, so to speak. (The late Red West is another.)
The speakers are identified by onscreen text, but remain unseen. A stylistic conceit of Zimny's approach is to avoid the "talking head" shots typical of historical documentaries; visually, the film is constructed from vintage material (including home movies, fan footage and rare television kinescopes); a few evocative recreations (shots of a boy on a bike to represent Elvis' youth); and new atmospheric footage from inside Graceland that aspires to present a moving-camera complement to William Eggleston's famous still photos of Elvis' home.
"You end up living in Elvis' space," Zimny said. "There's no cutting to the person in a chair to take you out of that world." He characterized the result as "a dreamscape."
Some of the more "dream"-like moments place special emphasis on a particular song. Elvis' haunting Sun version of "Blue Moon" and the 1961 "Lonely Man" are heard essentially in their entirety; the latter's lyrics are particularly appropriate to "The Searcher": "It's a lonely man/ Who roams from town to town/ Searchin', always searchin'/ For something he can't find..."
The title, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher," was identified by Jon Landau, the Springsteen manager who is among the film's producers, when he took note of Priscilla Presley's comment in an interview that "Elvis was a searcher.;
Priscilla Presley said the documentary achieves its aim by recognizing Elvis' role as a "producer" of his recordings as well as an interpreter of songs. "One of the things people have said about him is that he was 'lucky,' but that is so untrue," said Presley, 72. "Elvis was born to be who he was. He knew from the very beginning what he wanted to do."
Said Schilling of the documentary: "It's a good one, man. There's so much misinformation about him out there, you walk around after you see it with a better feeling about Elvis than you usually do."