Elvis Presley means many different things to many different people. To some, he’s the embodiment of everything America stands for – a cultural melting pot where a poor young man from the South can rise to superstardom as enduring icon. To other’s he’s the embodiment of everything wrong with America – a cultural appropriator who pilfered black culture for his own enrichment before becoming gaudy and bloated. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the life of Elvis Aaron Presley is the subject of an in-depth two-part documentary on HBO from director Thom Zimny, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Over its two parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher paints a vivid portrait of a complex American icon through interviews and archival footage.
Thom Zimny uses the 1968 television special that is commonly known as Elvis’ comeback as a framing device to examine the life of this icon, as if everything before the ’68 special were the glory days and everything that ensued after a tragic end. Using archival pictures and interviews with Pricilla Presley (who is also an executive producer on the film) and Jerry Schilling, known as a member of the Memphis Mafia, Zimny looks at the formative years of Presley as one of economic hardship for the Presleys. Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935 to Vernon and Gladys Presley in the poor town of Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother Jesse Garon was still born. The resulting loss led Gladys to form an incredibly strong bond with her only living son.
The documentary looks at the family life of the Presleys, with Elvis growing up a mama’s boy in a family struggling to make ends meet. The way Pricilla tells it and the way Zimny frames it, Elvis lost his mother while serving in the Army in Germany and it represented a moment where he seemed to lose his moral compass, which didn’t really become a problem for Elvis until many years later.
The title of Elvis Presley: The Searcher refers to the way the film looks at Elvis as a wanderer, seeking out his calling in life, a calling he would find in the various corners of the Memphis music scene. It’s not until Elvis nervously enters the legendary Sun Studios and meets Sam Phillips, who dedicated Sun to record much of the black rhythm and blues artists in Memphis. Archival interviews with Sam Phillips and musicians of the era such as Ike Turner dive into the culture that Phillips fostered at Sun. Rock legends Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen provide their own commentary on the early musical stylings of Elvis, both heaping praise on Elvis’ abilities as well as his legendary guitarist Scotty Moore.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher doesn’t frame Elvis as a man who was willingly appropriating black culture for his own profit, but instead picking up bits and pieces from every artist whom he viewed be they black or white. This is borne out in those early Sun recordings of Elvis, where he’s mashing up R&B stylings with country and bluegrass. Of all the great artists to record at Sun Studios, black or white, none of them sounded like those early Elvis records.
When Elvis parts ways with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, Elvis Presley: The Searcher introduces what it will posit as the villain of its narrative – Colonel Tom Parker. Having taken over management duties for Elvis, Parker would negotiate a deal with RCA and hustle for ways to get Elvis on television. Eventually, Parker is negotiating with major Hollywood studios to get Elvis into the movies. But as Elvis’ career was sidelined by his Army service, Tom Parker exerted more control over the Presley’s career. Upon exiting the Army, Tom Parker set up companies to handle the song publishing, ensuring that he’d get a cut of anything that Elvis recorded, and coerced his client to star in an array of cheesy movies that while popular would be a lasting stain on the legacy of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The second part of this sprawling documentary is the tragic fall of a star, one where Elvis is trapped in movies he doesn’t like, controlled professionally by an unscrupulous manager, and slowly becoming dependent on drugs. Then, freed from his movie contracts, the ’68 special happens and for a brief moment the old Elvis is seen once more – even though interviews with the crew of the ’68 special explain the control Colonel Tom Parker exerted over every aspect of the show.
This is where Elvis Presley: The Searcher starts to look at the dark side of America that Elvis Presley represents. Elvis begins touring again but the rigorous schedule creates a further dependency on drugs. And then Elvis starts his Las Vegas residency, performing multiple shows a night, wearing himself down while becoming further and further isolated while living only in a hotel. Wealth and power become an isolating element to Elvis, and the formerly humble poor boy from Tupelo becomes excessively adorned in jumpsuits and that endearing humble mumbling becomes drug-fueled incoherent rambling.
The life of Elvis Presley is a triumph and a tragedy, and as presented in Elvis Presley: The Searcher a fitting portrait of America. At once, it’s a tale of a poor boy rising to the height of fame and fortune only to have his own success become a dead weight that led to his untimely passing at 42. A young, handsome man devolves into a bloated shell of himself. And yet for all the tragedy and embarrassing moments, there’s something undeniably great that endures despite the glaring failings. Elvis Presley: The Searcher is the definitive portrait of an American icon, and how, for better or worse, our icons aren’t too different from our own national identity.