Elvis Presley died when I was six-years-old. I knew of him, of course. And when he died, I can remember it being quite the thing.
However, I was way beyond the height of his zeitgeist, or even his seminal comeback special on NBC in 1968, that reestablished his relevance.
What memories I had of Elvis were the sequined jumpsuited, bloated Elvis, doing karate kicks onstage in a Vegas showroom. The Elvis I came into the world knowing bore little resemblance to the one that was given the title of King.
My mom had a few records. As a boy I loved the song Kissin’ Cousins. Which is a somewhat embarrassing thing to admit.
So, for me, that Elvis was never THAT Elvis. In fact, I’ve always viewed him as being a bit passé. A relic of an earlier time who ended up in a lot of cheesy movies and died near his toilet in a garish home dubbed Graceland.
The thing that provided for me was the sort of context I never had before. Oh, I knew Elvis was, and to many, still is significant, but I never FELT it.
That’s because over two parts and four hours, this brilliant documentary directed by Thom Zimny (heretofore most known for chronicling the career of Bruce Springsteen), Elvis Presley: The Searcher MAKES you feel it.
I had a sense this was going to be something special from the opening shot. A long slow pan through a 60s styled room that stops in front of an old television cueing up that NBC special in 1968, titled simply Elvis.
It’s a brilliant maneuver, as it marks a perfect line of division in his career. Cool Elvis existed almost entirely on the left side of the timeline of the televised event, and the sad declining Elvis mostly to the right. A sort of B.C. and A.D., if you will.
In some ways, it was his last great “you gotta see this” moment. There were quite a few before that.
The film assembles a mix of stock footage, family photos, and several notable voices. From family and friends to luminaries like Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty (who is wonderful and missed in his own right), as well as Colonel Tom Parker, and Elvis himself through old recordings.
In some ways, the layout is superficially predictable. Boy grows up poor, picks up a guitar, becomes a huge star, experiences ups and downs, and dies tragically. Explained that way, it’s merely a cliche.
What makes The Searcher special is the way it contextualizes his impact upon the culture. One forgets how dangerous his music, his look, and his hips were regarded back in the 50s. Long before Prince mingled the sacred and the profane, Elvis was recording hymns one day, and getting censored from the waist down on television the next.
I’ve never been entirely sold on Elvis as a revolutionary artist from a sound perspective. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Big Joe Turner, and many other black artists were doing what he made popular and acceptable before him. But that’s the thing. He really did make this music popular and accessible. And unlike Pat Boone who had hits with his versions of Tutti Frutti and other songs written and recorded by black musicians, he didn’t completely neuter it.
I never thought of it this way before, but in his way, he cut a path for black musicians to become more successful. Not that he was some civil rights leader or anything. In fact, the movie seems to be unaware of any deep political leanings Elvis had at all. In a lot of ways, throughout his life, he remained a simple boy from East Tupelo, Mississippi.
On stage, he was wild, sexy, and irresistible. Off it, he was a “yes, sir – no, sir” kinda guy, who loved his mama and just wanted to play his guitar.
This lack of sophistication ended up hurting him though. While Elvis was ambitious, he wasn’t much of a fighter. So, when he hired Colonel Tom Parker to be his manager, he was ill-equipped to deal with the Colonel’s Svengali nature.
He wanted to be in movies, and the well-connected Parker was just the man to get him there. Unfortunately, the two wanted different things from Hollywood. Elvis wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, where Parker wanted a sellable product.
Therefore, despite his desire to keep his music and film careers separate, nearly all of his movies would invariably require him to sing and dance. With the notable exceptions of Jailhouse Rock and later the Ann-Margaret assisted Viva Las Vegas, much of his film work was disposable.
Elvis wanted to be great. Parker wanted to make a great deal of money, and often took the shortest path to do so.
The full takeover by Parker started when Elvis was drafted and did a two-year stint in the army. While enlisted, Parker controlled everything. He put out hastily recorded albums and singles Elvis tracked before entering the military. Many of them were hits, but most were slight in quality.
It was still Elvis, only a watered down version. Elvis rarely escaped that fate for the rest of his career. Upon returning from the service, Parker set out to make up for lost time. When Elvis Is Back was released as his first album of fresh material in nearly three years, and its sales were modest, Parker put Elvis back on the money train.
Two movies a year with mediocre recordings attached to them became the formula. While most were successful, the returns began to diminish, and in 1968, just before that fateful NBC special, Elvis was on the verge of irrelevance.
Which is right where part one ends.
While Elvis was singing Blue Hawaii onscreen with a lei around his neck looking anything but edgy, the 60s ushered in the Beatles (perhaps the only phenomenon to rival his own) and the Stones, Woodstock, and the counter-culture movement. Elvis was out of step with all of it. He had become that which a rockstar must never be. Quaint.
Sensing this, Elvis poured everything into his special. Having not performed in front of a crowd in years by the Colonel’s design, Elvis was so nervous he nearly canceled.
It’s hard to imagine that level of reticence when viewing the healthy helping of the special shown throughout The Searcher. Elvis was truly electric. While he was never going to fit in with the hippies and their psychedelia, his talent was simply undeniable. He was loose, (relatively) wild and free. From the moment he sits down on a stool looking impossibly handsome, clad from head to toe in black leather, he owns the moment.
One might think that evening would have been a springboard for a renewed Elvis. Better records and movies were sure to follow, right? For the most part, no.
The movies never really got better, and aside from the titanic single Suspicious Minds, the roaring Burning Love, and the wonderful LP Elvis In Memphis, he had become largely a touring entity at Parker’s behest.
By the time he became Vegas Elvis, his health had deteriorated, his marriage to Priscilla had ended, and the hits were merely occasional. Just nine years after his stunning comeback beamed out across the television airwaves, he was gone at 42.
Now, when an artist “goes Vegas” it’s widely accepted they are all but washed up. Trading on nostalgia over artistry. That phrase and it’s meaning come from the final bend on the arc of the career of Elvis Presley.
It’s a strange thing. To have such massive success and still have so much of it be a “what if” proposition. What if he had followed his muse? What if he had made more of his own decisions? What if he had never met Tom Parker?
The film closes with Elvis’ final performance from the NBC special. A huge, dramatic ballad called If I Can Dream. A song that would seem to be a harbinger of greater things to come. A statement of self-belief delivered with spectacular artistry.
Instead, it was practically a last gasp.
It is both great and impossibly sad. Just like this wonderful film.