How ‘The Searcher’ Filmmakers Set Out to Save Elvis’ Legacy
How a comprehensive new doc tracks the roots of rock's one true king.
Surely there’s no fabled tale in the lexicon of rock ‘n’ roll than that of the story of its king, Elvis Presley. And, as with any great legend, the narrative chronicling the short, spectacular life of this young man from Tupelo, Mississippi who became one of the singular icons of American pop culture has been altered, exaggerated and lampooned in the 41 years since his passing on August 16, 1977.
But a new documentary premiering April 14th on HBO aims to rectify any longstanding misnomers about Elvis by projecting his life in music in a way that’s much more Don’t Look Back than It Happened at the World’s Fair.
Directed by Thom Zimny, best known for his acclaimed work as Bruce Springsteen’s go-to videographer, The Searcher delves deep into the musical and cultural roots that ultimately proves both Public Enemy and Mos Def wrong about the idea of Elvis being a “straight-up racist” with “no soul.” By looking beyond the parodies and prejudices about the singer through rare photos, vintage film clips and thoughtful and observant voiceovers from the likes of Springsteen, the late Tom Petty and Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla among others, the documentary gives Elvis the cinematic salute that’s eluded him all these years.
And when you take in the two-part doc with the stunning three-disc soundtrack arriving April 6th that accompanies it, The Searcher goes above and beyond to tell the real story of Elvis Presley, where his passion for music trumps every preconceived notion you’ve ever had of the man. RealClearLife had the pleasure of speaking with Thom and veteran music journalist Alan Light—who also played a key role in the film’s creation as one of the writers—about giving Elvis the film he deserves.
How did you come into the idea of making The Searcher?
Thom Zimny: In making the film, I was trying to address Elvis for both the casual fan and the hardcore fan, because there’s just a lot of white noise that doesn’t deal with the artistry. And that was my primary focus when talking to Priscilla. It was a goal that we wanted to get across the idea that Elvis was a hardworking musician who didn’t really into fall into this by luck. And the key thing for me was to break down the myth. We wanted to concentrate on his tremendous love for R&B, gospel, country and the blues, all of which played out to make what came to be known as Elvis Presley music. There have been a lot of books and films that dealt with Elvis’s story, but they delved into the more salacious things and I wanted nothing to do with that. In making films with Jon Landau and Bruce Springsteen, I’ve always had an interest in the creative process and examining Elvis as a true artist.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Elvis?
TZ: Jon Landau, who produced the film along with Priscilla, and I were always talking about tearing down the cartoon version of Elvis because it felt like a generation was missing out on the key thing, which was the music. Elvis, for many people, became this caricature and the story, I knew, was not simple. I really spent a lot of time explaining the roots and influences of his life, and kept away from anything that was shtick. The other stories can deal with those details. I had no time for that.
Alan Light: I think that Elvis has been lost to the culture. Certainly, those below a certain age–and that age is not 25; that age is 45. I think when people think of Elvis they think of impersonators and weddings in Vegas and white jumpsuits. It’s all the noise and the freak show, and no sense of what this guy actually did and why is this important, why people cared so much about him. And that just felt like any relationship to the music and the work was held so far away. Everything we were working on began with the question, ‘Does this tell us about the story of the music, not the other stuff?’ Also, the other big misconception is that Elvis stole black music because he was white, which of course raises the question of why he was the phenomenon that he was and what was the popularity about him, all that stuff. I think if you listen to the music, he wasn’t imitating anybody. You hear the blues, but you hear the country. You hear the R&B, but you hear the pop crooning. And it really was this melding of a bunch of different things, and it’s not as simple as he went in and imitated black style and that’s what got him over. That’s not what’s in those records.
As one of those 45-year-olds Alan mentioned, the concept of Elvis in my generation has always been held in a negative light, like when Chuck D said “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me” in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. And who could forget Dread Zeppelin…
AL: Listen, he never went away as a character. He went away as a presence. But I think that any understanding of what the actual impact of the music was, that felt like the story that was there to tell. In the movie, Tom Petty says that it’s all the clatter of Elvis and how do you hear what he did, how do you get through that noise and hear what it was that he actually did as an artist. I don’t think there has been any film that does justice to the story of his music in this way. The reason the way people responded and connected the way they’ve done was through the music.
Of course, there’s always been the issue of cultural appropriation in the context of Elvis…
AL: Yeah, and I understand. I understand the question of why is he the king and why Chuck Berry is not or Little Richard is not. I think those are very fair questions. But it also takes away from the accomplishment because to snake those accusations of Elvis is to minimize what the music was actually doing. So I think you have to separate out what the art was from what the phenomenon was. I think when you hear about him seeking out—going to black churches, going to Beale Street—and searching for those sounds that were speaking to him. That was this active, creative quest for him. To call him a lucky hick does a disservice to his work and the creativity that went into his style.
TZ: The history of Elvis Presley has been presented in a shorthand form that leaves out the influences of other people, race, America and the beauty of an artist who connected to the power of music throughout his life. Elvis wasn’t just a lucky guy who stumbled into Sun Records. And Elvis didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll. He took all these influences and put them together naturally. And this movie tells that story honestly and makes it clear the amount of work and dedication it took to achieve his vision.
The soundtrack, especially the third disc that chronicles his sonic roots, really speaks to what you are both saying in regards to the depth of his love for music of all styles.
TZ: I made this film with Jon Landau, and we had a great time. We had these deep discussions about music. Jon’s a really creative force and I was happy to have him on this. In fact, the beauty of his 1971 Rolling Stone review of Elvis’s concert at the Boston Garden which he reads in the film is that it really is the thematic origins of this movie. It’s amazing to hear now because he was truly able to gather a take on Elvis that stands up to this day.
How did you reckon with the kind of cosmic rapport Elvis had with the music of Bob Dylan?
AL: He was interested in Dylan as a writer; he really didn’t get the singing. But it made more sense to him when he heard the Odetta Sings Dylan record, which connected the dots for him by hearing those songs in another way. But he was certainly aware of Dylan and watching him out of the corner of his eye, but it was hearing Odetta’s versions of Dylan’s songs that really helped him connect to his music.
Zimny: I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, and hearing Elvis sing ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ was how I would start my day every day in the editing room. It’s a very important track. I love Elvis’s version of the song, which came from Odetta’s arrangement. I think it’s a really beautiful thing to hear Elvis sing a Bob Dylan song. It just shows the power of his vocal style, but also his ability to step in the shoes of a Dylan song and make it his own.
You can tell from her voice in the film that Priscilla wanted to get his story about Elvis out there. The way she speaks about him as an artist is a revelation.
TZ: Absolutely. Priscilla’s really happy with the film. As a filmmaker, you hope that the key people who’ve lived with Elvis Presley were going to recognize the artist. For me, the highlight was Priscilla saying this was the definitive Elvis story in her eyes. So that was a bit of a dream come true for me. And she was a tremendous force in making the film. She gave me many, many hours of her time in interviews and also guidance, and opened up the full archives of Graceland to us, so a lot of the images are directly from the vault. But there were moments in the documentary where I wouldn’t just let the viewer rest on the image of his eyes and let the songs play out. To do service to the man and the musician and his creative process, there are moments where the only thing you could do is listen in a way that represents the tone of the image and how it tells the story of this man and the life he led.
The Searcher premieres April 14, 8pm on HBO.
The soundtrack to The Searcher comes out on Friday, April 6th on Legacy Recordings.