Allow yourself to prepare for the three stages of Elvis Presley: The Searcher before you consider watching. First, you’ll be curious about what ground HBO can cover in a three-hour documentary epic about Elvis Presley. Then you’ll be frustrated at the lack of teeth for the seedier, sadder components of the King’s life and music. (Army stress him to drugs? His borrowing was simply a matter of taste? Uh.) But eventually, you will accept that this guy was hot shit for a very long time, for a wealth of reasons.
Emmy and Grammy-winning editor and documentarian Thom Zimny’s film The Searcher is a lustrous effort. Channeling the aesthetics of David Gordon Green, Cary Fukunaga, and Ken Burns, Zimny does the smartest thing a music documentarian can do: he lets the songs breathe, and speak for the artist. And the harshest criticisms – verbal gymnastics, the questionable weight put on the ’68 special, the specter of Sony possibly holding Zimny’s hand as he approaches one of their most prized stars – melts away the second the King picks up a microphone and we’re allowed to bask in the mighty vocals and swaying hips of his iconic performances.
“Love Me Tender,” “Guitar Man,” “Separate Ways,” and something like 50 more Presley tracks appear, and they’re pleasers, all of them. Presented with weight, and even grace. Accessible to fans and fair-weathers alike, if you’re willing to make the time for The Searcher, you’ll leave it wooed and wowed by one of pop music’s most impressive legends. That slick hair, those puppy dog eyes, and that voice? Even in his shabby later years, the voice never broke, and The Searcher really makes you appreciate that.
As with any long-form biography, the beginning is the birth. Elvis Aaron Presley was from Tupelo, Mississippi. Daddy was semi-present. Elvis loves his mama. But music, that was Elvis’ heaviest passion. Now for Hornby music scholars, these are all very old notes (skip ahead perhaps), but for newbies, it’s interesting stuff.
Presley was the product of multiculturalism. He had an ear for bluegrass, guitars, crooning, and of course, gospel. He liked black music and culture. Now, as historians argue over Presley’s contributions and what he made versus what he stole, The Searcher and its cast of talking heads debate, but the movie ultimately has the will to say, “look, he liked a lot of stuff, and borrowed from a lot of resources, but he’s talented, successful, and lasting.” When a Sony producer (in voiceover) calls Elvis ‘eclectic,’ the urge is to scoff. That’s wordplay for theft, right? And yet, The Searcher attempts to be fair. The doc is happy to open wide, share audio of Presley’s influences, and deservingly highlight acts like Howlin’ Wolf and The Prisonaires and The Blackwood Brothers Quartet.
Memphis fostered his interests quite nicely, and Presley’s angelic voice, met with that quick and straightforward guitar sound, was nothing short of a revelation. There’s the success, the rise to fame, the ubiquity, the fatigue, that stint in the military, his Vegas years, the corny movies, and all the other stuff of legendary cliché. Pretend you don’t know Elvis, but you saw Walk Hard. Same story. But this really is Elvis’ story, and it’s delivered with integrity and style. So even if The Searcher gets a little chickenshit with say, Presley’s substance abuses, and tactlessly suggests that music was Presley’s realest high, it’s understandable in the face of such grand fawning. The Searcher only haphazardly tries to put a staple on Presley the man. The film’s most committedly analytical argument is that he was an amalgam. That he was also lucky. Hard-working. Hunky, too.
Zimny, in a nice stylistic move, assembles a narrative through talking heads – faces unseen. There’s talk from Priscilla Presley, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Steven Binder (the director of the ’68 concert referred to as “The Comeback Special”), Presley’s old friend Red West, and the list goes on. Zimny assembles these interviews like non-diegetic podcast confessionals/authoritative comments/differences of opinion. All atop clean and carefully edited content, and it works suavely and calmly against the bigger picture of Elvis’s grandeur. There’s grainy, digitally polished footage of preachers with no sound, overlaid with Elvis’ music, while The Boss considers the notions of a frontman and the ways in which Elvis was like a spiritualist. Meanwhile, Petty confidently discredits any notion that Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll. And a host of producers debate the hallmarks of Elvis’s cultural footprint. Fear not, if you miss the name or can’t place a voice, these people talk frequently with subtitled credits (a tiny but appreciated touch).
Zimny also shoots the film gracefully. Luke Geissbuhler’s languid camera work may feel a little like tourism advertising, but it really sells the myth. Calm Southern sunsets, overheads of backroads, and close-ups of bicycles. Beautifully diverse shots of music lifestyles and paraphernalia abound. And the interiors on Presley’s famed home, Graceland, shot at night, as the camera hovers with curiosity and affection, are something else. It’s rockabilly porn, but it’s well-achieved.
But perhaps Zimny’s best move is his film’s setlist. He simply lets Elvis perform, chronologically, throughout his career. The Searcher, at a certain point, ignores all arguments and anecdotes and just rolls out hit after hit. Funnily, it’s the doc’s most effective argument for Elvis’s canonical status. The second he begins to croon, all that pretense and verbal juggling fades as Elvis’ sexy, angelic voice trembles through your bones.
Eddie Murphy wasn’t kidding in Delirious when he suggested that filmmakers knew to just let Elvis sing. That was his performative gift. The guy literally says nothing but ‘crawfish’, in song, for two minutes at the beginning of King Creole, and his range is riveting. “Blue Moon Over Kentucky” could be viewed as a trouble spot. Elvis just covered Bill Monroe’s 1946 number for Columbia. But The Searcher lets Elvis’ cover play in full, with glowing footage of records and jukeboxes, and it makes one hell of a case for Presley’s sound. “Separate Ways” is contextualized in terms of his divorce with Priscilla, but Presley’s regretful lyrics and downtempo sound almost makes you feel bad for him as it plays over home movies.
With that said, it’s fair to knock Zimny, Sony, and The Searcher for what’s left out of the mix. Looking for a measured but tough examination of Elvis Presley’s cultural grave-robbing? An adults-only expose of the King’s sex appeal and drug problems? Perhaps a geek show of peanut butter/banana sandwiches and three-screened rooms? Beware, then: The Searcher is simply a romanticization of Elvis. In a way, that take is almost refreshing, given what we’ve come to know during his wild afterlife.
It’s the epitome of a Legacy Edition film re-release with impressive (albeit PG-rated) access to Sony’s archives. Deep, it might not be. But electric, elegant, and musically handsome it sure as hell is. So, yes: Elvis Presley’s voice and swagger and presence are strong enough to justify this three-hour, two-part vanity showcase. Because if the King’s singing, wardrobe, eating, lifestyle, stage presence and the rest didn’t clue us in already, sometimes it’s worth going big.