The two-part HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher doesn’t have many new thing to say about its subject, but 40-plus years and countless books, magazine articles, documentaries, and feature films after his death, I’m not sure what, factually, could have been added. The best that cultural critics and storytellers can do now is find a mildly fresh angle on the totality of Elvis, or zero in on a specific moment in his life or career. Filmmaker Thom Zimny, the director of numerous music documentaries and a regular editor on HBO’s The Wire, goes with option one, crafting a lengthy and meticulous, childhood-to-grave account of Elvis’s brief time on Earth.
If you’re mainly interested in seeing Elvis’s psychology, personal biography, and feelings explored in detail, this documentary won’t do much for you. Mythically powerful signposts and totems, such as the impact of Elvis’s twin brother dying at birth, get glossed over. Standard opinions are trotted out again, like the belief that Elvis’s movie output was mostly pointless, except for a couple of the early ones — a statement that people who obsess over how he moved, and how Hollywood struggled to reconcile its need for safety with Elvis’s sexual dangerousness, would dispute. Unsavory and depressing aspects of the King’s later years, such as his drug addiction and paranoia, his increasingly erratic and even violent behavior, and his symbiotic relationship with hangers-on, are barely addressed. Most of Elvis’s distress is blamed on the death of his mother and the dominance of Colonel Tom Parker, his longtime manager and a dark father figure — a conventional view of what drove the singer.
I’d imagine this is all the result of conscious exclusion or unconscious censorship. The documentary’s executive producers include Elvis’s wife, Priscilla; key “Memphis Mafia” member Jerry Schilling, who was friends with Elvis from 1954 until his death; Andrew Solt, who produced many documentaries about Elvis (and who must have either supplied or assisted with excerpts included here); and Jamie Salter, chairman and CEO of Authentic Brands Group, which manages Presley’s estate. There’s a sense in which this film — like a lot of recent documentaries about famous musicians — exist as brand extensions and ads first, no matter how much sensitivity and intelligence they bring to their subjects. Written biographies of Elvis — such as Peter Guralnick’s two-parter, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, from which The Searcher cribs its structure — have a lot more freedom to dig and speculate, because they don’t have to watch what they say for fear of being barred from being able to show his image or play his music.
Aesthetically, The Searcher is a win-some, lose-some situation. Mostly, it’s lose some, as reverently as it considers the meaning of Elvis. The editing seamlessly interweaves archival footage, re-creations with actors (their faces obscured), and informative close-ups of sheet music, album covers, contracts, and the like. The decision to restrict expert witnesses to audio-only allows living and dead witnesses (including Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, and Elvis himself) to coexist in a perpetual present of scholarship and appreciation. But the superficiality of the film’s biography makes it feel rushed, even when it’s making a point of lingering (as in the sections on Elvis entering the Army and Elvis becoming a sequined creature of Vegas).
The director’s decision to crop the entire thing to narrow CinemaScope dimensions is a mistake that will annoy anyone who cares about composition and/or is familiar with how media from Elvis’s time actually looked. It screams “This is cinematic!” while mangling the integrity of the older images, which comprise much of the film’s running time and were shot in the more squarish, 4:3 format characteristic of old newsreels and early TV. A lot of the time, we are literally seeing about 60 percent of what was there originally, often masked so that shots of groups of people can only show one person’s head while slicing off everyone else’s at the forehead or upper lip. When we’re looking at Elvis in a supertight close-up, bobbing and dancing, the cropping is a flat-out disaster: The King becomes a sweaty nose moving in and out of the frame. What difference does it make if the black bars are at the top and bottom of the frame as opposed to the sides? Why vandalize the past in this way?
Still, The Searcher excels when it analyzes the evolution of Elvis’s music and image, treating him (perhaps not coincidentally) as a human brand who was created before the word “brand” was a thing. The closest comparison is probably Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan biography No Direction Home, which was as much a critical-scholarly study of Dylan’s music as it was an account of his life. Bruce Springsteen’s longtime producer Jon Landau, the late Tom Petty, and other notable music-industry figures have smart things to say about Elvis’s relationship to gospel and country traditions and his relationship to black music, although a good bit of it feels like unnecessary damage control. Despite the famous Public Enemy lyric insisting that Elvis was “straight-up racist,” there’s no evidence of that being true. Nevertheless, The Searcher protests too much, in a way that makes it seem as if there’s fire with the smoke. Bruce Springsteen, of all people, makes a case for Elvis just wanting to share great music with the world when he was really just melding traditions he was familiar with and enjoyed, in an instinctive way that was surely more about self-expression than altruism or education.
When the subject is the specific sound of Elvis’s music — the component parts and how they ultimately combine and fuse — The Searcher is an absolute banger. I wouldn’t have minded a much shorter documentary focused only on that. Everybody who wades into this part of the pool has sharp observations to offer, Petty and Robertson in particular. But best in show goes to Priscilla Presley, who leverages her intimate relationship with Elvis to connect the sound of his music and the arc of his life. She talks about how his brilliant 1968 special was about reminding people of why Elvis was a big deal even as the instrumentation positioned him as a contemporary artist again: “It was about bringing him back to the beginning while going into the future.” She talks about his affinity for opera singers, and how that drove his vocal performance on his classic “It’s Now or Never,” and makes the killer observation that his late-’60s work was about blending gospel and blues and overlaying it all with his Elvisness, and in the process, finally achieving his fullest expression. If she had a podcast that did nothing but play Elvis’s music and then talk about how it sounded, I’d subscribe.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher premieres Saturday, April 14 on HBO.