Perhaps no other rock’n roll story is better known than that of Elvis Presley, the shy, introverted young man from Tupelo Mississippi who grew up in poverty, loved his mother, and loved to sing, and was discovered when he went to record a song for his mother as a gift at Sun Records studio. His saga is a true American dream tale of rags to riches. Four decades after his death, his life is still the subject of biographies and documentaries, as well as the basis of fictional characters. Last year, HBO released a massive 3 ½ hour documentary entitled The Searcher, with the blessing and involvement of the Presley Estate.
The Searcher is built around the ’68 Comeback Special, using it as a touchstone to tell the story of Presley’s life. Blending stock footage from the 1930s to the 1950s, home movies from the estate, as well as live performances and film clips, The Searcher definitely presents new and unseen material that is often quite compelling and paints an interesting picture of Presley at work and play. It’s compounded by all kinds of music, both Elvis’s and the music that inspired him, as well as stories from Presley, a handful of friends and family, as well as musicians such as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and Robbie Robertson.
Unfortunately, in spite of it being a beautiful looking film, The Searcher is surprisingly shallow. Although the film starts off wonderfully by an in-depth examination of Southern culture at the time of Elvis’s birth, it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be anything but a mostly superficial examination of Presley’s life. For a film that declares its subject to have been a “searcher,” that subject is rarely broached, outside of a discussion as to how gospel music influenced a very young Presley. There’s no mention of his spiritual quest of the 1960s, outside of the fact that he made a gospel album or two. What’s even more striking about the very brief mention this music receives is that there’s absolutely no mention of the fact that out of all the recordings he made his life, his Gospel recordings were the only ones to win Grammy awards.
Furthermore, there’s very little life to be found here. Presley’s story has been so sanitized, one can almost smell the antiseptic. No mention of or recollections from the Memphis Mafia, no discussion of his raw sexual power over women, none of the many stories of his kindness and generosity, no tales of hijinks or shenanigans on the stage, in Hollywood, or at home at Graceland––hell, even his daughter Lisa Marie Presley is barely mentioned! When you notice that The Searcher is relatively devoid of any specific details of happy or fun times, the film suddenly seems as morose as Presley’s photograph on the cover. Compounding the documentary’s sanitized feel is the fact that anybody with a modicum knowledge of the history of Elvis Presley knows that so much has willfully been left out. Elvis was a complex man, yet you wouldn’t know it watching this film. Such brevity of detail would be okay in a half hour documentary; it’s inexcusable in a three hour documentary.
The Searcher feels like the end result of a documentary by committee. Priscilla Presley stated in the bonus interview that she felt a sense of urgency about getting Elvis’s story down on the historical record, because so many of the players are dying away. That’s a very good reason for undertaking such a project; unfortunately, there’s very little utilization on any kind of archival recollections that surely do exist, aside from Sam Phillips, Tom Parker, and Red West. The reliance on talking heads who had no personal interaction with Presley in favor of those who did only helps reiterate the feeling that the estate wants to maintain an unrealistic, idealistic notion of who Presley was. It is stated in the film that Presley’s downfall started when he went from being Elvis Presley the human to being the enigmatic figure known simply as ”Elvis.” There’s very little Presley in The Searcher, and a whole lot of Elvis––and that’s a shame.
Attending the funeral of DJ Dewey Phillips—the man who first played Elvis Presley on the radio––Elvis and his entourage were standing at his coffin, paying one last visit to the man who helped make Presley. Someone says to Elvis that they felt the mortician had done an excellent job preparing the body and that the deceased look quite lifelike. Elvis looks down and with a sneer tells his friend, “the sonofabitch looks dead to me!” The Searcher might make Elvis Presley look alive to some, but the sonofabitch looks dead to me.