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HBO Documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher Debuts at SXSW

New archival footage of the king, the musician, the man behind the music

By Jessi Cape, March 9, 2018, Screens

Elvis Presley: The Searcher offers a fresh look at one of the most famous musicians in history, with a dedicated focus on the man as a working musician, not just the caricature that time and fame has drawn. “This is really, I think, the definitive documentary about the artist, the man behind the music,” says Priscilla Presley, former wife of the late superstar. Divided into two films, the three hours of archival footage, photo stills, and narration reveal a rare intimate glimpse of Elvis, almost like stepping inside of his private photo albums.

“My heart goes out to him,” she said. “[This film] humanizes him so much. ... He’s known for rock & roll. He’s known for the stigma of the ‘ultimate man’ – the good looks, the whole package. And here you see the vulnerability, what he went through, and his ups and downs.” Presley, executive producer of the film, continued: “I don’t want to focus on the drugs because that’s part of rock & roll, first of all, and I hate to say it. I don’t want to take anything away from the creativeness of who he was. He was a genius. ... His management [just saw] him as a moneymaker.”

Austin, a musical city where Priscilla has roots, is seemingly the perfect place to premiere a film about a working musician. (She was living on Bergstrom Air Force Base when her father got his orders to move to Germany in 1959. She met Elvis about three weeks later.) “Austin and Nashville are the places to go for musicians to really congregate and talk about music – truly the capital of the music industry right now,” she said. “People think that Elvis was an overnight success. He was not. He worked hard. He was doing malls, highs schools, colleges, little places out in the boonies. ... It’s true: He was a struggling artist.”

According to director Thom Zimny, “Elvis got in the car with a bass on top and traveled on the road; he learned his craft playing one-night stands.” That thinking was why executive producer Glen Zipper convinced him to premiere the film at SXSW, “and I think he was right. It really is a reflection of a lot of the energy in the movie, and of the love for music, and for the South, in the film. ... When I was thinking about the Elvis story, that was the key: to keep discussing the music and not fall into some sort of examination of his lifestyle, to really to look at history differently. What were the influences on Elvis? Who were the people surrounding Elvis as a child that helped develop that sound?”

With “absolute carte blanche” access to the archives, including thousands of stills and over 6,000 digital recordings, Zimny digs deep into the personal musical history of Elvis. The second film even includes a previously undiscovered recording – “a really haunting vocal” – of Elvis’ mother Gladys singing. Zimny said, “I was chasing those [lost] details because it paints a much more complex, layered vision of Elvis than had been out there before. [Priscilla] gave me a side of him that I hadn’t seen in other books or films. [I] got to hear about his frustrations with his career, and also just his frustrations as a person who loved music, and the destructive force of making those films.”

“I think if there’s any tragedy in the two films it’s to realize that Elvis as an artist was held back,” added Zimny.

To anchor the films stylistically, Zimny decided not to include any visuals of the interviews, instead focusing exclusively on the archival footage and photos, with voiceover narration peppered throughout. “I came into filmmaking as an editor and worked on many documentaries. There have been moments where I just dealt with voice – and the rhythm of voice – and with the Elvis film it was really important that I lived in the space that Elvis occupied. ... I felt that the idea of seeing someone talk in a chair would ground you to a contemporary vision of the film taking place. I wanted the film to feel like a dream where you were going back into time seeing Elvis in Super-8 home movies, seeing the space of Graceland as a character, and hearing these voices – the voice of Elvis or the voices of people who spent time with him. I wanted the voices to have this musical feel, and I wanted to be able to play with images and ideas against the soundtrack.”

Elvis Presley: The Searcher explores far more than his greatest hits. Little-known recordings and performances, as well as Elvis’ gospel roots, are highlighted, and interviews with Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and industry giants such as Jon Landau and David Porter shed light on his other critical influences. “You also get a real concept of his life on Beale Street. He got his style and his look going down that street,” said Presley. “Elvis already knew very early on that he was unique. He was very different and as a young child he knew something big was going to happen to him – never in his wildest dreams as big as he got – but he definitely wasn’t your normal teenage boy. He never was so complicated, or trying to position himself for what he was set out to be. That was just who he was. He loved style. He loved the music.”

A lifelong Memphian, Porter watched Elvis transform from just a kid hanging around the Beale Street clubs to a major talent who explored the influences of black artists while still maintaining his own style. The legendary songwriter and producer, formerly in charge of A & R (artists and repertoire) at Stax Records (Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers), said, “Elvis was amazing – not at trying to make anyone think he could dance like Jackie Wilson – but he had that animation and that movement that gave him an individual identity that was just as impactful as it was to watch Jackie Wilson dance at the Flamingo. It just speaks to the visionary parts of his creative mind.

“There are no new emotions, so when a person has the ability to find an impactful way to [affect] people’s emotions, based on how they are creatively able to do that, that’s a stroke of genius, a stroke of creativeness that’s hard to find,” added Porter. “I think true artists find things about themselves that amplify their credibility, and not every artist has the intellect to seek things in their inner core to do that. But when you find ones that are able to do that, they become the greats, like Michael Jackson, like James Brown, like Elvis Presley.”

Elvis Presley: The Searcher


Part 1: Wednesday, March 14, 5pm, Zach Theatre
Thursday, March 15, 1:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Part 2: Thursday, March 15, 3:30pm, Alamo Ritz

Elvis Presley: The Searcher


Wednesday, March 14, 12:30pm, ACC Room 12AB

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