HBO’s documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher follows the music that made the legend rather than the legend who made the music. From dirt poor to Graceland, is there any greater American success story than Elvis Presley? Elvis was more than just any singer. He was a cultural icon, like Frank Sinatra. He rivals and, to this writer, surpasses John Wayne as the face of 20th Century Americana.
The three-hour film was directed by Emmy and Grammy award winner Thom Zimny, who does very much the same thing the 1968 special did for Elvis. NBC’s Singer Presents…ELVIS was directed by Steve Binder, who told Presley story by moving through genres. Elvis Presley: The Searcher tells Presley’s artistic story from his early gospel songs, to the blues and country that formed rock and roll, up to his 1976 recording sessions at the Jungle Room in Graceland with an RCA van parked out back with the studio’s entire mobile recording unit inside it. Elvis Presley didn’t have musical training, just a dexterous voice and the thrill of a few chords. He wasn’t self-conscious, bringing an innocent giggling quality to some of his sexiest stage moves. Elvis Presley: The Searcher shows he never stopped trying to further his music education.
Elvis was training to be an electrician when he recorded his first local hits. He played local nightclubs and little football fields until he met Colonel Parker. The most popular artist of rock and roll suffered the most indignities. He rose above it as TV came to grips with his swiveling hips, but he could never set his own rules, except on the stage and in the studio.
Presley’s early Sun Studio recordings are wild. His voice is untamed, his enthusiasm unrestrained, his timing impeccable. Presley had no idea what he couldn’t do, only that everything he tried sounded the way he heard it. The swooping falsettos he brings to “Blue Moon” turn it into a dreamscape bordering on lunacy, and his growl on “Mystery Train” could derail the song on any dangerous curve. But the first time he hit TV, producers dressed Elvis up in a tuxedo so he could sing “Hound Dog” to a hound dog. Elvis sells the performance, pulling at the dog’s jowls playfully while keeping one leg pumping.
A tornado ripped through Tupelo, Mississippi, when Elvis was a kid that laid waste to a lot of property. The twister mixed up new emotions with old time religion. The music of the church had an immense effect on Presley, who started beating time in the aisles when he was three. To hear the documentary tell it, the foundation of rock and roll was laid down on Sunday mornings in churches across the south
The documentary catches Presley admitting moving to Memphis was like moving to Paris. The young and hungry musician wasn’t afraid to seek out the black musicians who kept Beale Street dancing. Musicians like Ike Turner, who wrote and released the rock and roll’s official first record, “Delta 88,” and BB King whose fingers bent blues so loose it traversed musical worlds.
Presley ushered in rock and roll, swiveling his hips to mix the racial divides between blues, country and gospel music, while secretly wishing he could sing like Mario Lanza or Dean Martin. Elvis Presley: The Searcher doesn’t put a lot of attention on the “Million Dollar Quartet,” Sun Records’ early stable, which also included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, but it does hint at the comradery of the fellow musicians and absolutely gives Sam Phillips his due. Had Philips been as powerful a promoter as the Colonel, Presley’s career could have been a less compromised artistic affair.
What happens when the biggest star in the world gets drafted, Warren Zevon asks. It changes everything. Not only did Colonel Parker stop Presley from recording as much material as the artist believed could sustain his time abroad, Presley came back respecting an authority beyond his own parents, and the rhythms that moved him. When Presley was a kid, his father Vernon went to jail for a forging a check, was sentenced to three years, served six months, and never forgave himself. Presley’s mother, whose rendition of “Home Sweet Home” is heard in ghostly tones in the documentary, was his best friend and biggest inspiration.
Writer/producer Ernst Jorgensen tags Elvis as a very ambitious musician. Not ambitious for fame, that was Colonel Parker who wanted to turn Elvis into Sinatra. Presley, the guy with the voice and the fingers on the guitars, liked a challenge. He came back from the army with more to say, but the good soldier he’d been turned into followed the orders of the Colonel.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher focuses on the music behind the myth but bares the compromises Elvis sat through. He came back from the army wanting to sustain a career with the songs he wanted to put his voice to. But he could only use the songwriters the Colonel, the record companies and the publishing companies controlled. Elvis didn’t care about what the Colonel owned. He just didn’t want to constantly sing family friendly GI Blues soundtracks. Elvis was willing to wait until time itself changed things.
The documentary shows how the success helped and hurt the music. Presley had the power to do anything he wanted, explore any genre, make any movie, but money kept getting in the way. The studios didn’t want to waste Presley on serious movies, when his audience sold out theaters to watch him dance with Ann Margaret in Viva Las Vegas. Okay, they were right on that one, but we hear Presley himself almost complaining about the roles he would have liked to play. He’d certainly lived through enough to pull off any role just like he could move his voice through any song. The last live performance Presley gave before he disappeared into movie work was a military charity show at the Bloch Arena near Pearl Harbor on March 25, 1961.
Presley assembled some mad fine players for his first post-army album, Elvis Is Back. Presley returned to the RCA Studio B on March 21, 1960. DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore were at some sessions, but he also had his All-Star team. Besides the ever-steady vocal backing of the Jordanaires, he had pianist Floyd Cramer, bassist Bob Moore, Buddy Harman on drums, and guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins. These musicians who could move through pop, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music easily.
On the song “It’s Now or Never,” the opening guitars are amazingly European. The propulsive mambo beat brings a life to the American version of “O Sole Mio” that American-born Mario Lanza might envy. Elvis insisted on capturing the song in a full take. He would not suffer an edit to hit that last high note. The whole performance had to be captured in one take. The documentary doesn’t say how many takes it took for him to get the perfect performance, but probably not too many. Presley was primed.
Presley set the same musicians to his gospel album His Hand in Mine, and the band never missed a beat. Presley wanted to reach and feel what we all go through, according to Priscilla. That was how he chose his songs and how he chose his musicans. Elvis in Memphis was recorded with local musicians under the twiddling but emancipating thumbs of Stax Records producers and engineers. For his Las Vegas residency, Presley worked with The Sweet Inspirations, a gospel vocal group featuring Cissy Houston who harmonized under Aretha Franklin and Wilson Picket.
The special repeatedly refers to the “1968 Elvis Presley Comeback Special” as a major moment in Presley’s and America’s musical history. Presley lost what could have been his most progressive musical period to increasingly disappointing film work. After The Beatles launched the British Invasion, further whitening pop music even as they made it more revolutionary, the hound dog appeared to be chasing his tail.
The documentary explains how the special included the chorography of Presley’s movie hits, his Las Vegas swing, and some down and dirty blues. But Presley shines during the gospel sequence, and a sit-down jam session. NBC’s Singer Presents…ELVIS’s gospel sequence included the legendary Darlene Love and her vocal group The Blossoms in the choir. Presley was accompanied by his long time sidemen, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DC Fontana banging his sticks against a guitar case, along with guitarist Charlie Hodge and percussionists Alan Fortas and Lance LeGault.
Aloha from Hawaii from 1973 was another TV landmark. Presley was broadcast live to the entire world via satellite. The documentary gets into his prep, even that he lost weight to do the show after a series of long tours.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher could have spent more time on Presley’s multi-instrumental talents. He wasn’t a virtuoso on any instrument, but he knew his way around them all. We see still photographs of Elvis playing ukulele on the set and in studio sessions for the movie he made in Hawaii, but he also played piano, banged on drums and had a special affinity for the bass. According to the Beatles Anthology, all the Beatles but George Harrison, who “never jammed with Elvis,” remember Presley holding firm on bass duties. He’d already been playing bass to whatever was on TV. Presley played the electric bass part to the song “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” for the Jailhouse Rock soundtrack.
Watching this documentary, I see where David Bowie, who shares a birthday with Elvis, learned how to hold his shoulders on stage. Yes, Frank Sinatra refers to the shoulder movement in the TV special he shared with Elvis, but it is apparent much earlier. Presley’s stage performances went well beyond the shaky pelvis. Elvis Presley’s voice is far more diverse than most casual, “thank-you-thank-you-verymuch” fans may realize. There are songs in the documentary that had this writer wondering if it was a Presley performance or something he heard that made him want to record something. Each time, it’s Elvis.
The documentary bares some open musical wounds of missed opportunities. A few years after Presley first got out of the army, while he was stuck in his movie contract and the soundtrack obligations that came with it, he discovered folk music. While Presley wasn’t a fan of Bob Dylan’s voice, he felt the charge of emotions as it came through the singer Odetta. Glen Campbell was chastised by the country music community for recording Dylan songs, but Elvis could have been a driving force in the youth culture voice reserved for British Invasion bands. Imagine Presley’s voice, still in its prime with his All-Star RCA studio band and gospel choir reimagining such revolutionary personal statements.
The documentary includes some excellent cutting room floor footage, home movies and rare pictures where you can even see Elvis blond. Elvis Presley: The Searcher also interviews Scotty Moore, Red West, and Tom Petty. Bruce Springsteen, another American icon, assesses Presley’s music, and his spiritual connection with it. Priscilla Presley talks about the influence of success, pills and divorce had on Elvis. They rivalled music right before Presley’s death in 1977. It gives the musical documentary a biographical tag.
The score, written and performed by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, does a lot with very little, providing counterpoint for the action while giving the vintage singles room to breathe. I love a particular run McCready does on banjo over a distorted guitar chord, blending time and genre in little more than a sustained chord.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher is a rocking good time. Freed from the gossip and rumors of most Elvis presentations, they are free to have the same fun Presley had with the music that made him make great music. Yes, his output was stifled, but his creativity shown through. He caught everyone’s attention, from The Beatles to Martin Scorsese, and kept going for the high notes on the first takes.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher premiered on HBO on April 14.