When the Pretenders played the Tower Theater last month, Chrissie Hynde took time out to praise the epochal life force and ultra-talented vocalist who set off a post-World War II youthquake in popular culture.
“How did they know he was Elvis Presley?” she asked about the parents of the infant who came into the world in 1935 in Tupelo, Miss. “How did they know what to name him? ‘Look Vernon, it’s Elvis Presley!’ ”
Hynde’s conjecture about a conversation Gladys Presley and her husband could have had was startling, in part because the pioneering female rocker spoke of Elvis in such awestruck terms. She was speaking of the subject of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, the two-part HBO documentary directed by Thom Zimny that premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday.
She was talking about the mythic Elvis, Elvis as a “human Adonis,” as Bruce Springsteen refers to him in his Broadway show, the seemingly supernatural presence destined to become the King of Rock and Roll who ignited a musical revolution and freed 1950s America from sexual repression.
Forty-plus years after his death in 1977, Presley is not typically spoken about in such reverential terms. More frequently, he’s caricatured either as a bloated carcass in a white jump suit, showing off karate moves and muttering, “Thank you, thank you very much,” or as a hip-swiveling sensation from a bygone black-and-white TV era.
Or worse: A blatant cultural appropriator who reaped the rewards of white privilege to become unimaginably rich and famous while worthy African American artists who preceded him never received their just rewards or credit due.
As Chuck D. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy unfairly but unforgettably put it, striking back against an exclusionary culture on their righteous 1990 “Fight the Power”: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s— to me / Straight-up racist that sucker was simple and plain, m— him and John Wayne!”
Elvis Presley: The Searcher steps into that breach, setting a mighty challenge for itself: To reclaim Elvis, not as a symbol or cultural divider, but as an artist. Sometimes laying it on a little thick, it portrays Presley as a seeker, telling a story about “a man [who] is singing … because he has lost something and thinks maybe he can find it in a song.”
The movie was coproduced by Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau and made with full cooperation of Elvis’ former wife Priscilla Presley, who has carefully worked to preserve Elvis’ legacy since his death. She’s one of the the voices who carries the narrative forward, along with such music-makers as Springsteen, Tom Petty, Stax Records songwriter David Porter, Emmylou Harris and Robbie Robertson, as well as academics William Ferris and Portia K. Maultsby and Petty biographer Warren Zanes.
It’s packaged along with a smartly selected, three-disc soundtrack that does an excellent job of recontenxtualizing Presley’s career. It mixes less-familiar material like “Lonely Man,” a ballad recorded for (but not included in) the 1961 movie Wild in the Country, with unmistakable high points, such as the fabulously vibrant mid-1950s Sun Records sessions, the heartfelt gospel Presley returned to again and again, and the “Burning Love” era of late-breaking artistic revival.
The film features a third disc of music that impacted Presley, from close-harmony gospel groups the Blackwood Brothers and Prisonaires to Jackie Brenston’s protean “Rocket 88,” the 1951 Ike Turner-produced track that preceded Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” in the who-invented-rock-and-roll sweepstakes by three years.
Like Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, Peter Guralnick’s terrific two-volume Presley biography, the two parts of The Searcher are split between the singer’s rise from dirt-poor beginnings and his gradual undoing after returning from serving in the U.S. Army in 1960. Under the direction of manager Col. Tom Parker, he squanders his talent on kitschy, often-execrable movies while growing dependent on prescription pills.
The first half is predictably electrifying. Early recordings, like the Sun sessions ballad “Blue Moon,” are hauntingly beautiful, and Presley’s command as a vocalist from R&B to country to gospel to schmaltz is everywhere impressive. He’s always believable, whatever he’s singing. (When asked by secretary Marion Keisker what kind of singer he was when he walked into Sam Phillip’s Memphis Recording Service at age 19, he answered: “I sing all kinds.”)
Rather than directly address the complicated appropriation charges leveled against Presley, The Searcher makes a case for the purity of his artistic intent. He synthesized blues and country and gospel into his own explosive brand of rock and roll, which detonated on the pop charts in part because he was white, and in part because he was Elvis, and far more charismatic than other Caucasian competitors, like Eddie Cochran or Bill Haley.
The Searcher also makes the argument that Presley‘s rebellious, unbridled enthusiasm for African American music in a fiercely segregated time — a passion for which he was widely vilified by a mainstream white cultural establishment whose existence he threatened — did the world at large a great service.
“Elvis’ music pointed to black culture and said, ‘This is something that is filled with the force of life,’ ” Springsteen says. “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.”
Along with Presley himself, the secondary star of The Searcher is Petty, a major Presley fan who is heard from intelligently and often throughout both parts of the documentary.
One of Zimny’s smart decisions in telling the story — which is framed by Presley’s triumphant 1968 NBC comeback special — is not to show any talking heads on screen. Only Presley himself is seen speaking.
That adds a ghostly quality to the commentary Petty recorded before his sudden death last year at 66. Petty, who met his hero in 1961 as an 11-year-old when the King was in Florida filming Follow That Dream, explains how Presley served as his own producer in recording sessions. And he paints a pained picture of the isolation that fame can bring. “The Beatles had each other,” Petty says. “Elvis was alone. There was no one he could bounce anything off of.”
The Searcher is positively disposed toward its subject, and without ever being confrontational toward haters, it rightly aims to restore Presley’s artistic reputation. As we listen in on a poised, heartbreaking “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” Porter praises Presley’s interpretative abilities. “He would lose himself in an artistic way, in order for people to feel it,” the Memphis songwriter says. “That’s called soul.”
But no matter how you tell it, the second half of the Elvis saga is a sad story, less enthralling than the first.
For fans, the mismanagement of his career remains galling. After returning from Germany, Presley didn’t perform live for virtually the entirety of the 1960s; he stands aside and, as Petty puts it, “knowingly humiliates himself” while the pop world was being remade by artists he originally inspired. And he’s seemingly unaware that his ambition to perform across the globe was stymied because Colonel Parker was not a U.S. citizen and was afraid that if he left the country he wouldn’t be allowed back.
The Searcher shines light on Presley’s artistry while retelling the oh-so-American story of his remarkable rise and ultimate fall to an ignoble end, surrounded by riches but unfulfilled in his own private Graceland, never quite finding what he was searching for.
“The image is one thing, the human being is another,” Presley himself puts it in one particularly poignant interview. “It’s very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”