(Image via HBO)
Watching Thom Zimny‘s incredible documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher on HBO this weekend made me beat myself even more for missing the film at SXSW last month. The film had its world premiere to rave reviews at the festival, and the response has stayed the same since it premiered this past weekend. I’m now one of those people praising this film. A near four-hour (split up into two parts) biography on the life of the King is an introspective, personal, moving, and fascinating look into the life of Elvis Presley. He was a man who was deeply talented and gifted, and a man who as great as he was, we never got to see him at his full potential in many ways (you can thank Colonel Tom Parker for that). I’m biased in that I’m a huge fan of documentaries like this one, but The Searcher is one of the more impressive and best docs that not only HBO has done recently, but one of the best period.
The film tracks Elvis through his humble beginnings in Mississippi to his early recording days at Sun Records in Memphis, to his introduction to Colonel Parker, getting drafted, becoming a movie star, Pricilla, the ’68 Special, Vegas, and so on. Zimny interviews a wide range of people from Elvis’s life. Sam Phillips, Pricilla, David Porter, and even surviving members of his original band. Zimny also interviews people like Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Robbie Robertson and other musicians who were deeply moved and inspired by Elvis’s life to help guide and tell the story of Elvis’s life.
Petty, in what was presumably one of the last interviews he gave in this film before passing away last year, was surprising in how much knowledge he has of the man. The interviews in the film are all audio interviews and not on camera (similar to what Alex Gibney did for his superb Sinatra documentary for HBO a few years back), and Petty’s voice is heard almost as much as the other people in the film who knew Elvis the most. It’s no secret that Elvis had a profound impact on Tom Petty. I remember reading in Warren Zanes’s biography on Petty got to meet Elvis when he was a kid because his uncle was working on one of Elvis’s movies. But Petty has a really extensive knowledge of his life, his career, his music, his complicated and strange relationship with the Colonel, and so on. Speaking of Zanes, the writer/musician is also interviewed pretty extensively in the film talking about Elvis’s life.
The film does a great job of portraying Elvis as a human being rather than getting caught up in the legend of Elvis, or the more out-there stories about Elvis that we’ve heard of throughout the years. There isn’t even a mention of his meeting with President Nixon, and his drug use is mentioned in passing to portray Elvis deteriorating as his marriage to Pricilla has fallen apart, and how Colonel Parker took advantage of Elvis during his career and after his death in 1977 (if you’ve ever been to Graceland it has Colonel Parker written all over it in how he ran his business). Colonel Parker prevented Elvis from trying new and different things with his career, and you begin to realize that as great as Elvis was as an entertainer and a musician, there’s a feeling that we never got to see his full potential because of how demanding and controlling the Colonel was of Elvis’s life. It’s a fascinating relationship, and while Zimny doesn’t quite crack the reason why Elvis stuck with him for all those years (I don’t think anybody can ever really figure that one out), he does an incredible job of portraying that.
I loved The Searcher. It’s a fascinating look into one of the more mysterious and captivating figures of 20th Century American pop culture. It’s the best portrayal of Elvis that we’re ever gonna get, and as a casual fan of the artist, I have a greater appreciation of the man as an artist and as a human being. As a fan of music and a fan of documentaries, I can’t recommend this film enough. I really loved Zimny’s doc, and I hope you will too.