HBO premieres a new two-part documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher Saturday night, which clearly aims to restore the musical legacy of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. ArtsATL managing editor Scott Freeman and senior editor Andrew Alexander each screened the four-hour documentary and sat down to share their impressions.
Scott Freeman: Let me say, first of all, that Elvis is one of my musical heroes. At the age of five, I heard his incredibly bluesy version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” on the radio, and hearing that song was like someone had flipped on the lights in a cave. I can trace everything I love about music back to that one song. It was never a hit, but I’ve always considered it one of his greatest performances because he took a straight country song, an iconic one, and turned it into something no one else had imagined it could be. So I welcome this documentary and intent behind it. [One of the executive producers] is Jon Landau, who was a Rolling Stone editor and then became Bruce Springsteen’s manager. Overall, as an ardent Elvis fan, I think this documentary hits the mark in terms of delving into where his music came from and the passion he felt for it. The documentary is by no means complete or definitive, but that wasn’t the intention. Andrew, I know that you’re also an Elvis fan. What was your impression of The Searcher?
Andrew Alexander: What a great story about your first encounter with Presley’s music, Scott. So many Elvis fans have stories like that, and they often seem so very personal. When I was last at Graceland about a year ago, I went super early in the morning when the property briefly opens its gates before paying visitors arrive. They allow fans to walk up the driveway to visit his grave in Meditation Garden without a ticket. It was rainy and cold, but I was impressed by the devotion of the group that was waiting outside so early in the cold for the gates to open. (No one comes and opens them, by the way; they just open. It’s kind of eerie.) There was a group of women from Hokkaido, Japan, who had traveled for the purpose of the visit and had brought signs, teddy bears, flowers, gifts. I realize his voice can leave some people cold (we won’t talk about them too much), but for those who respond to it, it cuts pretty deep.
I thought the films — the two episodes are really like two full-length documentaries — told the story beautifully, and fans will be excited by the deep dive filmmakers did into the Graceland archives (the research was the subject of a recent New York Times article). I have a lot to say about various aspects of the film, but one thing that stuck in my craw was the fact that all the interview subjects — Priscilla Presley, Jerry Schilling and many others — are never shown: we only hear their voices. It’s a strange technique. In most documentaries, you see the contemporary interview subject at some point, even if the filmmakers want to show you something else while they’re talking. For me, it actually became a problem. The things the film does show are fascinating, but somehow the whole thing seems somewhat cold, impersonal, almost anonymous, because it never shows the speakers. What did you think of that approach? And I’m actually more curious to ask: Do you feel the film revealed sides of Elvis Presley you hadn’t seen or thought about before?
Freeman: That approach didn’t bother me, although I am curious about their motivation for not including on-camera interviews, because it did take some getting used to. In terms of revealing sides of Elvis I hadn’t seen before, I’m a total Elvis goober who knows more about Elvis Presley than anyone should. So I didn’t get surprised a lot. The one thing that did surprise me was how aware Elvis was about his music and how it was corrupted during the ’60s when he was in his “make-three-horrible-films-a-year” phase. They showed a photo of one of Elvis’ movie singles — “Do The Clam” — that symbolizes that disconnect between what made Elvis great and what he was turned into during that period. Elvis recorded two magnificent gospel albums during the ’60s, and I learned from the film that was his way of rebelling against the heavy hand of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. What parts did you find revealing about Elvis?
Alexander: It might be a showdown between us as to who is the bigger goober. There weren’t many surprises for me either, but the story was told well. When I was growing up and getting into music in the ’80s, Elvis was almost entirely a figure of fun: fat Elvis, white jumpsuits, sideburns, bad movies, big sunglasses, souvenir kitsch, sightings — there was a novelty song called “Elvis is Everywhere.” Funny, but it was almost impossible to know that there was a real person, an artist, behind all of that. It’s true that Elvis may have been “everywhere,” but actually hearing his music was somewhat rare, at least it was for me then. Elvis was only fat for brief periods during his career (and by today’s chunked-out standards, he actually wasn’t that fat), but the culture’s shock at seeing him that way was actually what held over into the ’80s. What the film does so nicely — and I suspect this will attract the kids’ attention — is that it really salvages him from that weird, kitschy box. You can learn so much about him, but no matter how much you discover, the interior will always remain something of a mystery, which is part of the allure, I suppose. For all the different ways people have sought to describe and frame Elvis, I think this one — as a searcher — is pretty fresh and inventive, interesting and successful.
Freeman: When I lived in Las Vegas, I would go to events, and there would inevitably be Elvis impersonators — and plural because there would be one for the ’50s Elvis, one for the ’60s Elvis and one for the ’70s Elvis (and often Elvises in between). There was even a 500-pound “Fat Elvis” who had a lounge act out there and claimed to be his lost son. At some point, Elvis did turn into kitsch, and his incredible musical legacy seemed to get lost in all that. This documentary does reestablish his musical cred, and shows exactly how he merged R&B and gospel and country music into something new and exciting — rock ‘n’ roll. I think the most illuminating interview for me was with David Porter, the Stax Records songwriter who cowrote “Soul Man” with Isaac Hayes, who talked about seeing Elvis in black nightclubs around Memphis before he got famous and how he soaked up that music. Were there any scenes or images that especially stood out for you?
Alexander: I know many of the archival clips and photos are seeing light of day for the first time in many years, but some of the most memorable images for me were actually just contemporary shots of Graceland that the filmmakers took. We sort of swoop through the home in high definition and see rooms and furnishings up close and from angles that you don’t get to see on the tour: some of the home movies are being projected in the TCB room, for instance. Contemporary shots of the Mississippi Delta and so on were beautiful and haunting and really memorable, and I admired the ingenious device of framing the story through the music and images of the ‘68 Comeback Special. You?
Freeman: That opening scene where they show the “Singer Presents Elvis” logo on a television screen, the prelude to the ‘68 Comeback Special — I remember that moment with clarity, sitting as close to our television set as possible and completely mesmerized by every second of that show. The opening song, “Trouble,” was originally part of the King Creole soundtrack. When he sang the movie version, he was almost timid and hesitant. In the comeback special, he was fierce and dangerous. It was Elvis Presley unleashed, as vulnerable and as powerful as we would ever see him. No one gives him credit for this, but it was also the original “Unplugged” concert. You kind of cringe when Elvis commandeers Scotty Moore’s electric guitar during that segment and makes Scotty play his acoustic, but, man, Elvis could play, and that revelation is part of what makes that segment so magical. I have some thoughts on this, but, first, were there parts of this documentary that didn’t work for you? Or places you wish they’d gone deeper?
Alexander: I liked the way the film covered his deeply religious upbringing and the gospel records, but overall there was something too pious and a little cheesy about the approach to the topic. Elvis remained pretty religious throughout his life, but I don’t believe he was entirely satisfied with organized religion: like a lot of people, he was searching throughout the ’70s. He and Priscilla reportedly tried LSD, and through his hairstylist Larry Geller, he explored a lot of new age and Eastern philosophies. Perhaps partly due to his insomnia, he was a huge, almost obsessive, reader throughout his life, and among his favorite subjects were philosophy, spirituality and world religions. It’s not an aspect that’s up front in his public persona, but considering the film’s title and concept, I thought it would dive much deeper into all of that. I hate to sound like the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, but in the end, nothing gives a sense of the man like a walk through Graceland. It really is like a time capsule, and he had such an extraordinary, singular style: somehow, he is right there, and you can’t leave without getting a sense of who he was. I thought the film would feel more like that, but it didn’t.
Freeman: I learned all my spiritual beliefs through my hairstylist; didn’t you? I’ve never been to Graceland, although I did visit Sun Records. They have the place marked where Elvis used to stand when he sang, and walking into that recording studio felt holy. Elvis always had a very carefully curated image, and, for me, this documentary adheres to that. It doesn’t delve deeply into the dysfunction, and I think that leaves out a compelling part of the narrative. There are four-hour documentaries up on Netflix on The Eagles and on Tom Petty, and both of those dig into the warts. I read where Joe Walsh saw a working draft of The Eagles documentary and called the filmmaker back to reshoot his interviews, saying something like, “I didn’t realize we were supposed to be telling the truth.” I wish The Searcher had that same mindset, but I understand its intent and can appreciate that.
Alexander: “I didn’t realize we were supposed to be telling the truth.” I love that. And there actually are documentaries where you wonder if anyone involved ever realized. A final question: So much of the cultural debate lately has centered on cultural appropriation, and a figure like Elvis lies right at the center of it for many. What, if anything, do you think the film has to add to that discussion?
Freeman: I think David Porter really spoke eloquently to that. Elvis was hanging out in black nightclubs soaking up black music because that’s what moved him. Little Richard has talked about how Pat Boone recorded a white-bread version of “Tutti Frutti” that white kids listened to when their parents were awake, then they’d play his original version late at night when their parents were asleep. I think the difference is Elvis didn’t whiten up black music, and he didn’t appropriate it by mimicking it or offering up a pale, homogenized imitation. He merged it with his other influences to create something that had never been heard before. And not very many people can say they did that. What’s your take?
Alexander: The culture’s racism, inequalities and divisions were toxic, but ultimately, music, art and inspiration aren’t. That’s the way I’ve always felt about it. Having said that — and this certainly wasn’t the direction the filmmakers were going — there were some discomforting and disturbing resonances for me in watching the film’s story and images unfold. So many black musicians had nothing, and then a white dude gets inspired by their style and suddenly he’s “The King” in a white cape and diamond-studded jumpsuit. It’s a weird story, one has to admit. I don’t blame Elvis. The lasting nature of his fame (he continues to break sales records, outpacing many living artists) — as well as his popularity all over the world in places where people don’t have any investment in the sort of racial constructs that Americans can get so hung up on — prove that it’s really the quality of his voice, of the passion, originality and persona that come across in his music, that make him such a lasting phenomenon. He was a singular artist, but there’s no doubt America is a strange and singular place. Both those things can come across pretty powerfully in the film. Any final thoughts?
Freeman: I never saw The Beatles live, and I never saw Sinatra. But I did see Elvis, twice, before the tumble of his final couple of years. In fact, the first concert I ever saw period was Elvis in 1972. This film doesn’t capture what that moment was like, but no film can. The instant he walked out onstage, there were so many flashbulbs going off that it looked like daylight. And there was this electric surge of excitement every time he moved. I’ve never experienced anything like that since, and I probably never will. You know, it was Elvis.