Can it really be true that an Elvis Presley documentary as probing and thoughtful as Thom Zimny’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher does not already exist? After decades of home video performance-film releases and docs of varying quality, this two-part, three and a half-hour film feels like a landmark, something that should be welcomed as warmly as the two Elvis books published in the 1990s by Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Chipping away calcified layers of myth and caricature to address the psychology behind Presley’s career, its seriousness and sensitivity is no surprise to those who’ve followed the series of documentaries Zimny has been making about Bruce Springsteen. Sure to fare well when it bows April 14 on HBO, it made for a spellbinding big-screen experience at the music-rooted SXSW Film Festival.
Zimny’s most obvious big decision here is to keep every one of his interviewees offscreen, using only their voices to accompany vintage photos and film clips. He’s not the first documentarian to do this, of course, but few filmmakers with access to Springsteen, Tom Petty and Priscilla Presley would dare to hide their faces from fans. The choice works for many reasons. It lets Zimny include the occasional clip from a pre-existing interview (including, sparingly, those with Presley himself) as if all were speaking directly to us; it establishes a trancelike tone; and it lets him jam in the kind of local-color footage he otherwise would have had to ditch in favor of talking heads.
A must-see for fans of early rock ‘n’ roll.
So now, when we’re hearing from Elvis’ childhood friend Red West or historian Bill Ferris, we’re seeing the world this “most eclectic” music-lover was eagerly consuming: clips of everyone from Howlin‘ Wolf to sanctified preachers to bluegrass pickers; street scenes from Tupelo, Mississippi, and then Memphis, where the family moved, a place whose vibrant city life made it as exciting as Paris to small-town newcomers. The town was not integrated, but it was diverse, and the Elvis we meet was busy slipping into black nightclubs and houses of worship, picking his influences, magpie-like, as he assembled “his version of himself.”
It’s a thrill to join the musician in these years, even if only through the accounts of others, and Zimny follows as the young singer has his fateful encounters with Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips. Petty tells us that, “for a lot of noble reasons,” Phillips had been looking for a white ambassador who could carry the exciting sounds of new black music beyond the “race records” commercial ghetto created by the big record companies. He got more than he could have hoped for in Presley’s sound, which, far from just aping Big Joe Turner et al, mixed strains of music few could have imagined would make sense together. Zimny and his interviewees offer plenty of colorful stories from this period, charting a commercial success that happened quickly but only, as Presley archivist Ernst Jorgensen points out, thanks to an enormous amount of work on the touring circuit.
And then came the Colonel. Zimny and company explain the appeal of Elvis’ manager-to-be Colonel Tom Parker: The singer had sincere ambitions to act in movies, he wanted to sell records nationally and Phillips ran a one-man, regional operation that could not give him those things. As Part One moves toward a close, we see the Colonel giving his client everything he wants. On his first movies, Presley was so serious about acting he learned not just his lines, but everyone else’s. He didn’t even want to sing in them, but producers had different ideas. As did Uncle Sam, who drafted the star and put his career on hold.
Part Two is, of course, a darker experience, but the picture is more complicated than even a fairly serious Elvis fan may understand. Priscilla Presley, who made some appearances in the first part, offers much more here, helping us understand how being forced into making a string of lousy movies was one kind of artistic prison, and then being ensconced in casino hotels for his famous Las Vegas residency was another. In one of very few expressionist moments, Zimny presents an array of cardboard Elvis cutouts in a hazy room, racking focus from one to another: The man who had so carefully created his original persona was now stuck in the shallow roles others forced him to play.
(The movie’s other, repeated effect is simple but shockingly effective: On a few occasions, Zimny picks a particularly arresting Elvis headshot and stays on it, moving slowly in on his eyes as we listen to him sing. Don’t call it corny if you haven’t seen it.)
As difficult as things got for him personally, the film presents Presley as a man who continued (despite some listless periods) to be driven by the need to create meaningful music. Springsteen and Petty reject cynicism even when it comes to the spangled-jumpsuit years. The latter admires the “audacious craziness” of the size of the band he put together; in tackling material others might call pompous, like the Mickey Newbury medley “An American Trilogy,” Springsteen admires Elvis for “trying to be a vessel that could contain the entirety of the American experience.”
Elvis also wanted to take that experience to the rest of the world. Having never left the U.S. except with the Army, he wanted to tour Europe and Japan, but the Colonel had reasons to quash such ambitions. Throughout the two-part doc, Zimny has returned to footage from the 1968 “Comeback Special,” presenting us with an example of how superstardom could be compatible with authentic artistry. Now, at the end, this motif becomes deeply emotional, connecting Elvis’ ideals about racial harmony to the political world around him to the heartbreaks to come. It’s enough to make those of us who always preferred Presley’s Sun Studio peer Johnny Cash to shed a tear — even if we perk back up quickly at the news that Zimny is currently prepping a (hopefully just as ambitious) film on the Man in Black.
Production company: Old Farm Road Films
Distributors: HBO Documentary Films, Sony Pictures Television
Director: Thom Zimny
Screenwriter: Alan Light
Producers: Jon Landau, Thom Zimny, Kary Antholis
Executive producers: Glen Zipper, Priscilla Presley, Jerry Schilling, Andrew Solt, Alan Gasmer, Jamie Salter
Director of photography: Luke Geissbuhler
Production designer: Kris Moran
Editors: Anoosh Tertzakian, Thom Zimny
Composer: Mike McCready
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)