There are many different Elvises, from the young hillbilly who set the music world alight with his very first recording to the bloated, drug-addled superstar, squeezed into a white jumpsuit with cape, playing to packed houses in Las Vegas casinos. In a week in which it’s impossible to get to the movies in many parts of Australia I’ve settled on the two-part Netflix documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, as the most enticing home viewing option.
If you’re looking for a shock-horror account of Elvis’s follies I’d recommend Albert Goldman’s 1981 biography, which details so many nutty episodes it makes Michael Jackson look like a role model. By general agreement the definitive narrative of Elvis’s life is Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography, 1994-99, which balances the good with the bad, the achievement with the weirdness.
Thom Zimny’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher takes a positive approach to its subject, perhaps deciding we’ve heard enough about the lamentable oddball Elvis became. The famous meeting with Richard Nixon, dramatised in Liza Johnson’s film, Elvis & Nixon (2016), is not even mentioned. Many of the most significant events of Elvis’s life, such as his marriage and divorce from Priscilla, are quickly skimmed over.
The Elvis we meet in this sympathetic documentary is a polite, god-fearing young man blessed with enormous natural talent as both a singer and a performer. This Elvis learned everything from hanging around the streets, clubs, bars and churches of Memphis, picking up tricks to incorporate into his own act. His most formative influence was probably Gospel music, which remained a life-long passion, a safe-house to which he would return whenever things got bad. His other chief sources of inspiration were country and western music and the blues. Unusually for a true son of the south, born and raised in a “shotgun shack” in Tupelo, Elvis’s tastes were completely colour-blind. He adored black music and haunted the venues where black musicians played.
He was 19 years-old when he finally got up the courage to walk into Sun Records and ask the legendary Sam Phillips if he could cut a disc. Phillips could feel there was talent here, and sent the raw wannabee to mess around part-time musos, guitarist, Scotty Moore, and bassist, Bill Black. They came back with a version of Arthur Crudups’s 1946 blues song, That’s Alright, that burned up the radio stations and became an instant hit.
In no time at all Elvis and the boys were touring around the region playing daily gigs to adoring fans. Within three years he had achieved a level of success and notoreity – for his “sexualised” on-stage persona – unmatched by any other American performer at such a young age. By 1955 he was being managed by self-styled Svengali, Colonel Tom Parker, who would orchestrate Elvis’s rise to stardom, and exploit him remorselessly for two decades.
Parker offered no resistance when Elvis, the hottest property in popular music, was drafted into the US Army in 1958. It fitted with his long-term strategy of repositioning the singer as a patriotic, clean-cut, respectable idol of the middle classes. The Colonel was also responsible for tying Elvis into movie contracts that would see him spend the best part of a decade making inane commercial pap, putting out soundtrack albums he despised, falling into a malaise as the musical hurricane of the ‘60s went whistling past.
Elvis’s second coming began with a TV special in 1968 that backtracked over his entire career. After overcoming his nerves, the singer found his mojo again and became the incomparable Elvis of old, no longer a maker of kitsch movies and forgettable pop songs. The documentary returns time and again to this TV show, seeing it as the pivotal point in his career.
The next step saw Elvis take to the stage in Las Vegas, where he would adopt the jump-suit and cape that would forever doom him to caricature. Yet this was not the way the bizarre super-hero costume was received at the time. Audiences loved the look and the patriotic mega-show Elvis was presenting. By 1970 he was touring again, giving concerts all over the country, following a punishing schedule cooked up by the Colonel.
The film quietly lists the frequency of these engagements: 1970 (81 concerts), 1971 (157), 1972 (165), 1974 (150), 1975 (108), 1976 (129). Small wonder Elvis grew progressively dissociated from reality. When he wasn’t on stage he was bunkered down with a loyal group of hangers-on, sequestered behind the walls of Gracelands. He took pills to help him sleep, and to get through the day. His diet was a horror show, his physical and mental health shot to pieces. When he died on 16 August, 1977, the post-mortem left doctors amazed by his pharmacological excesses.
What makes Elvis’s death so tragic is that he was wealthy beyond most people’s dreams and had no need to push himself so hard. Throughout his life he had been a tee-totaller, fiercely opposed to drugs, but he became a hopeless opioid addict in order to keep performing to huge crowds, allaying his own feelings of insecurity and irrelevance.
This documentary makes the case that Elvis was a true artist in his chosen medium and a revolutionary agent for social change. He broke down the colour barrier that kept black music away from the mainstream and turned an entire generation on to a new kind of sound. He unleashed the raw, sexual appeal of rock and roll while remaining a polite and courteous southerner, utterly devoted to his mum.
Elvis was a star before he had matured as a human being, and his soaring fame ensured he would continue to live in a bubble. This made him easy prey for Colonel Parker, who manipulated Elvis’s emotions and gave false hope to all his naïve ambitions of being a movie star, or even making the music he loved best. If there’s rarely been a bigger star than Elvis there’s never been a major performer whose back-catalogue is so incoherent, so laden with trash.
One of the most compelling aspects of this film is that it avoids the ‘talking head’ style of most documentaries, relying instead on archival footage drawn from concerts and newsreels, over which we hear commentators’ voices. The cast includes Elvis’s friends such as Jerry Schilling; cultural historians like Bill Ferris; and fellow musicians who have smart things to say about Elvis’s life and music. The two most insightful interviewees are probably Bruce Springsteen and the late Tom Petty.
If I started quoting these rock professors I could fill an entire column, so I’ll settle for one snippet of Springsteen. “What is Gospel?” he says. “Gospel is a place where you go for transcendence, where you go for peace, where you go for a certain type of security. It’s a home. It’s a deep home within your soul and your body.”
The fact that Gospel was a lifelong haven for Elvis tells us a great deal about his fears and soul-searching. He is portrayed as a “searcher” who wondered if God might have another plan for him; whose own anxieties were reflected in the emotional intensity of his performances and the bond he would form with an audience. Beyond the rhinestones, beyond all the contradictions, there was a big heart and the intuition of a born performer. Elvis may have made a mess of his life and career but he just couldn’t help believin’ that music was the path to paradise.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher
Directed by Thom Zimny
Written by Alan Light
Starring Elvis Presley and others
USA, rated M, 205 mins (2 episodes)
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 July, 2021