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ELVIS PRESLEY: THE SEARCHER is a film that walks us past the lights and the times of Elvis Presley’s career. It gets us past the shouting of the carnival barkers, the headlines, and the histories. This is a film that wants us to move in closer, where a man is singing...…because he has lost something and thinks, maybe, he can find it in a song.
.....promotion from the back cover of Elvis Presley: The Searcher The Original Soundtrack (Deluxe Edition)
From the outset, producer Jon Landau insisted that this documentary, as a thoroughgoing investigation of Elvis’ life and work, needed to be focused on the man and his music.
.....from the liner notes for Elvis Presley: The Searcher The Original Soundtrack (Deluxe Edition)
Before discussing Thom Zimny's powerful documentary film (and its impressive three and a half hours running time), it is worth considering what its title signifies?
Elvis Presley: The Searcher? Is it the artist searching for meaning within or through his songs? Or is it the man searching for meaning in his life? Or both?
While the two descriptors (above) taken from the film’s soundtrack set may or may not fully answer those questions, they at least offer interesting perspectives.
In explaining the theme of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, Warren Zanes (writer) may have said it best:
Elvis was so attuned to the emotional and always on the search for emotional music.
It is interesting that in the variety of many, many reviews about Elvis Presley: The Searcher some emphasise the music theme while others focus on the documentary’s biographical strengths. The young Elvis' music roots are deftly defined and developed throughout the first part which weaves a wondrous tapestry filled with color, music, trials and tribulations - an incredible journey which climaxes at heights previously unheard of.
In its first part there is a vast amount of wonderfully expressive archival material (stills, video and commentary) which provide a great framework to drive the underlying story and provide a real feel for Elvis growing up and how his music career reached its “Presleymania” peak in the mid 1950s.
Critically, Elvis and African-American music are portrayed as a simbiotic relationship and not a predatory one. At the outset, this sets a positive contextual tone for what is an engrossing film documentary.
In the context of Elvis being a "searcher" the strongest evidence, musically, are his gospel recordings. I acknowledge that there is fine consideration of the How Great Thou Art album in the second part. Given the "searcher" theme, Zimny could have made more of the connection between Elvis' "searching" and gospel music.
Not surprisingly, the biographical element of Elvis Presley: The Searcher is at its best in the first part. The time period involved (birth to Army) offers the most involving biographical material.
Elvis’ importance as a trailblazer for future stars (and its downside) is strongly stated:
"………he had to make the road map for future stars - it was why he became a prisoner of the Colonel's driving objective for commercial success".
A real strength of the film are the narrative comments which background the visual canvas of the film and are predominately thoughtful and illuminating. The observations often come from those who knew or were influenced by Elvis and include Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and celebrated rock writer, Nik Cohn. The weakest of the observations are by the film’s Executive Producers (Priscilla Presley, Jerry Schilling), not because they lack validity, but because they are driven by EPE’s strategic direction for how the “Elvis story” is told and belie the fuller and richer experience that was his life and music.
The documentary progresses generally as a linear narrative with episodic glances into Elvis’ psyche and its “searcher” theme. Motifs are cleverly used and Elvis Presley: The Searcher is at its best when it sets the socio-cultural context for its subject with in-depth analysis and archival material. In this respect, part 1 is narratively stronger than its concluding part.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher, while ostensibly about Elvis’ music(?), ends up trying to have the best of both worlds by being a composite bio-music documentary. Part 1 clearly overshadows part 2 through its greater offering of deep analysis and archival materials of Elvis the person and Elvis the musician.
And as did Guralnick in his two-volume written bio, part 1 of Elvis Presley: The Searcher ends when Elvis enters the Army. This leaves part 2 to cover the period 1960 to 1977. Part 2 is still interesting but suffers due to having less depth.
However, just as Elvis’ music is not fully explored in the documentary, this is also true for the biographical element of his story.
At times, important themes are not developed. For example:
Elvis never forget the experience of being in poverty. It stuck with him all his life. These themes not developed (and could have been linked to his music) –e.g. how did memory of poverty drive him in his music?
Vernon's incarceration led to a pattern of him being away – I’m not certain the claim is true and it wasn’t developed beyond its initial mention.
For instance, producer of the ‘68 Comeback Special, Steve Binder, offers his views on what the Colonel thought about Ann Margret.
Elvis and Priscilla's relationship is highlighted where Elvis’ other romantic relationships are not.
Jerry Schilling comments that Elvis didn't have script approval and the films had limited budgets.
“Elvis outgrew Colonel Parker as an artist but he didn’t know how to cut the strings.” Priscilla Presley.
Colonel Parker is appropriately portrayed as an astute manager for Elvis in the 1950s but as someone out of touch and self-serving for the rest of Elvis’ career. The trope of the artist stifled by a self-serving manager/promoter is well drawn. The Colonel's 'carny mentality' was not well suited to a more sophisticated music industry in the 60s and 70s.
Blame for Elvis' lack of creativity can also be placed at the Colonel's feet. Films allowed him to put Elvis in front of the most people for the least work. The Colonel was adept at limiting exposure to opportunities. However, a contractual commitment to three films a year meant soundtrack albums took precedence over studio recordings.
In relation to Elvis’ triumphant Aloha From Hawaii satellite concert, writer Jon Landau, perceptively comments that:
Aloha was a metaphor for keeping the blinkers on – that’s what I think the Colonel was all about.
By being very selective in what aspects of the Elvis (as a person) story are covered, a number of important things are ignored, such as Marion Keisker and her key role in Elvis’ musical start, Elvis’ romantic relationships besides Priscilla, Elvis’ drug dependence, the Memphis Mafia, etc. At least a number of these impacted Elvis’ “search”. Having Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling as executive producers was always going to be problematic and their (corporate) impact on the content of the documentary is evident.
Also, any serious examination of Elvis’ music necessarily has to provide material commentary on elements (it’s not as though Elvis only recorded a few movie songs!) of the Elvis catalog which may not be seen to offer real creative value.
Part 1 devotes significant and deserved time to Elvis’ film career in the 50s - in stark contrast to the documentary’s dismissive and minimalist treatment of his subsequent films in part 2. In part 2 there is "blink and you'll miss it" discussion of Elvis’ film recordings in the 60s (a period that made up more than one third of his career!), and only a brief acknowledgement of what they meant for him as a “searcher”.
Surely Elvis' mid-sixties connection with the Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in California was a key part of his genuine search for something deeper outside his movie roles and life with Priscilla?
Zimny addresses Elvis’ 1960s film career in its visual media form, rather than offering any depth analysis of its music content and impact on Elvis as a "searcher". Jerry Schilling’s observations on Elvis’ declining film canon, lower budgets, weak scripts and the influence of the Colonel are all valid, and while they provide an explanation for declining quality, they are not about the music.
Elvis’ movies in the 60s had a number of creatively nuanced and often quite satisfying recordings, for example, Can't Help Falling In Love, Lonely Man (recorded for Wild In The Country but cut from the final film) and Return To Sender, although admittedly, most of Elvis' celluloid output in that period, while often pleasant, is quite forgettable. And while they may not symbolise an artist searching for something surely they suggest why the artist eventually does, once again, search?
There was scope for meaningful interviews with senior members of Elvis' film crews (directors, producers), co-stars and music academics and critics – with questions linked to Elvis’ musically creative slide.
I have the same criticism of the documentary’s treatment of Elvis’ Las Vegas and concert recordings in the 70s. If the film is really about the man and his music, this element cannot be ignored or given only cursory treatment (as it has been).
Elvis’ decline in his post Aloha years is essentially served by a few screen graphics rather than any real narrative analysis – yet, in his final few years Elvis “the searcher” was arguably at a peak, the pain of his search clearly reflecting itself in number of his live performances, notably How Great Thou Art, Unchained Melody and Hurt.
Overall, part 2 of Elvis Presley: The Searcher often seems rushed and lacking depth, particularly when compared to the treatment afforded Elvis in the 1950s in Part 1.
While I understand the producer’s reasons for essentially ignoring the musical creativity (or lack thereof) of Elvis’ 1960s film career and his last few years (both musically and biographically), it nevertheless devalues the great work and depth of thought offered in the film’s opening part.
Returning to the promotional description for Elvis Presley: The Searcher stated in introducing this review......in watching the film documentary, do we find the artist who lost something and found it in a song?
In my opinion, not really. At the beginning of his career one could not say Elvis had lost something, rather he was "discovering" something great within himself. Certainly, by the end Elvis was desperately “searching” for meaning in his life and expressing this in his music, yet this period is not explored in depth in the documentary.
Despite its undoubted strengths Thom Zimny's explorative treatise about Elvis struggles to live up to its title. It is creatively conflicted in the sense that to really explore Elvis' “search” for meaning in his life has to go beyond his music. On a personal level, the period when Elvis was most a "searcher" is arguably from the mid 1960s when his career had stalled and self doubt was creeping into his mind, yet the strongest narrative exposition occurs in the first part of the film prior to 1960.
Trying to explain, through his music, Elvis' search for meaning is also problematic as that elusive concept of "meaning" could not really come solely from music. And throughout his career, te music that brought Elvis closer to "meaning" was gospel (for which the two-part He Touched Me The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley is a seminal documentary).
As it is presented, the viewer cannot accept Elvis Presley: The Searcher in only a music context, for the documentary continually strays outside the theme of the artist searching within his songs into straight biography territory. There is nothing wrong about this except that it does not reflect the apparent intent behind the making of the film.
Verdict: Despite its weaknesses, Elvis Presley: The Searcher is a powerful, engrossing and enjoyable film, ranking as one of the two* best documentary films ever made about Elvis. It resonates with thoughtful analysis and sublime archival material in its first part and while structurally and narratively weaker in its second part, nevertheless holds the viewer’s interest from beginning to end. The film stresses the positive over the negative and in so doing will please most fans. However, by ignoring or glossing over the negative, the film necessarily fails to achieve status as a full and truly rigorous examination of Elvis, his music and his "search" for meaning.
*The documentary that rivals Elvis Presley: The Searcher as being the best is the 1987 two-part: Presley: I Don’t Sing Like Nobody (part 1) and Cut Me and I Bleed (part 2) (both narrated by Suzi Quatro)
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HBO documentary Review by Nigel Patterson.
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EIN READERS FEEDBACK
From Evan Hunter
As an Elvis fan since approximately 1976 (I'm 53), I always remember how much I loved 'Devil in Disguise' on the Elvis Gold Records Volume 4 album.
I then became the fan that preferred 'Power of my Love' instead of 'Suspicious Minds' and 'It's Easy for You' over 'She Thinks I Still Care'. I appreciate the classic top 10 releases, but how cool is Dixieland Rock?
So here is my point...
Firstly, the Searcher CD. 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Suspicious Minds' with the hardly popular (outside the Elvis world) 'Hurt' from the Jungle Room sessions??? What the hell were they thinking?
The great chance to release a whole CD of OUTSTANDING different songs and they stuff it. Just to finish it off in the charts completely; let's not advertise it at all and give it a crap cover. I love the man, but that's not an appealing covers for the masses.
To the uneducated EPE; we want THE MASSES buying new Elvis releases, not 53 year old Elvis fans only.
And now to the doco that I haven't seen and may never get to see. My response is based on your review, of which only a small part saw me seeing red.
Why, oh why is Elvis Presley constantly portrayed as Mr 50's King, Mr Crap 60's insignificant and finalised as a Vegas fat write off in the 70's?? That's what EPE and Priscilla Bowlmeover (she is not a 'Presley', they divorced in the 70's) have again cemented by having the fifties in one WHOLE half and the remainder squashed into the other half.
There are some bloody great movie tunes (King of the Whole Wide World, Clean up your own Back Yard, I need Somebody to Lean on) and some even more fantastic (hardly heard of by the masses) 70's stuff (I Just Can't Help Believing, Bringing it Back, Washed my Hands in Muddy Water, Pledging my Love) and I haven't even touched on his non-movie 60's recordings (most of the 'Elvis is Back album, plus sprinklings along the way, like 'Love Letters' and 'Down in the Alley').
For goodness sake, he was SO much more than Hound Dog, All Shook Up and Are you Lonesome Tonight. He wasn't "The Searcher", he was "The Artist that Everyone was Searching to be"!!!!!
Rock on Elvis. Now if they could just let us (non-generic) fans have a say in the releases and give us an advertising budget.... Mmm.
From Pam Connell
Cilla ALWAYS has to have her way. It's nearly 41 years since E has sadly passed. She is still milking him for $$$$$...........Jerry shilling is a know it all.......Clings to cilla these days for fame and $$$$$
THANK YOU for such a thorough, insightful review of this documentary.
I too, felt as you do, that they missed so many opportunities for really presenting the FULL, TRUE life of Elvis Presley. I felt, as I’ve always felt when Priscilla and Jerry are involved, that Elvis’ musical career ended with the Comeback Special and Aloha from Hawaii. All those years afterward, in Vegas and on tour, when so many of us enjoyed seeing him perform his magic in concert, are lost.
The documentary to me, was an advertisement for the ’68 Special, perhaps for the 50th Anniversary?
I watched this documentary three times. The first time, I was totally disappointed. I found the first part boring and drawn out at times, and the second part, as you mentioned, shallow and lacking in so many areas. After watching it the second and third time, I found it more enjoyable, but it’s still not my favorite documentary.
Thank you again for presenting an honest, thoughtful review.
From Pat C
I didn't like your review.
It put down to much about how Elvis was shown in the Searcher.
They did a really good job with the special and should be thanked for it.
From Freddy Snip
I wanted to state my thoughts on The Searcher.
I have seen both volumes and I am not thinking much of it.
The positive side is, that it had some(0nly a few sadly) unknown footage.
What was Priscilla and Jerry even thinking? They both try to rewrite history.
Elvis didn’t have much trouble with the lyrics of Burning Love, that’s bullcrap, he just didn’t like the song.
Since when did Elvis his folks give him a record player at Lauderdale Courts, Memphis? And he played My Happiness on it?
The Presley’s were just too poor to afford this kind of luxury. We all know that Elvis went to his school buddy Ed Leek ,( who had a record player at his home) to listen to his own recording. It was Ed who still had this record in 1990 and sold it to BMG. ( these are just 2 instances of wrong facts, but there are much more, yet I hear no one talk about it)
What is also very disturbing to me, that they do not really portray Elvis the muscician and genius, but the only try to defend Elvis his pill habits, mediocre movies, and portray him as a sad, pathetic human being who was not a dependent man etc.
And what about the deluxe cd set? It adds nothing to my opinion, the documentary is only serving trying to sell songs we already have
Multiple times in our collection. And the songs of disc 3 are available to other sources. Priscilla and Sony have learned a lot from Parker to sell their products, since the movies also served as a vihicle to sell the soundtracks and vice versa. IMHO This is Elvis is still the best Elvis documentary about his life today.
I was very dissapointed in all of this.
I can't wait to see the documentary.
When will it be shown in New Zealand?
EIN Note: Negotiations are underway about broadcast dates for Australia and New Zealand
|EIN review ‘Elvis: The Searcher’ Deluxe CD boxset:
If your main interest in Elvis is his music then HBO’s ‘Elvis: The Searcher’
will probably become your favourite documentary ever produced about our hero.
The companion 3-CD deluxe edition box set offers an expanded 55-track overview of Elvis’ career as heard in the film including familiar hit recordings, powerful vocal performances and rare outtakes plus a bonus disc of additional recordings relevant to the film - including several early singles that inspired Elvis.
Thom Zimny said, "To live with the music of The Searcher over a period of years was more than a privilege. It changed my thinking about the emotional life of songs, both for those who make them and those who listen to them."