It’s unfortunate that Elvis Presley in some quarters has become a punch line. A cliche. But that image is not entirely without cause. Let’s face it, in the end, he was drug-addled, isolated, eccentric, wearing sequin jumpsuits, firing guns into television sets and taking his personal jet on a midnight run to Denver for a Fool’s Gold. An oven baked sandwich made with an entire loaf of bread, slathered in peanut butter, jelly, and bacon.
But a new HBO Documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher undertakes the mission to save the image of a gifted and eventually mismanaged artist from that of the tabloid caricature.
The story takes you back to the very beginning, Elvis born dirt poor in a Tupelo, Mississippi shotgun shack. It’s there that he begins to soak up the music and moves of the musicians around him. Country, blues, bluegrass and gospel, black and white. As Tom Petty said (he is one of the show’s narrators along with Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and others) “He did not invent rock ‘n’ roll per se…What he did was different…”
As Sam Phillips points out (founder of Sun Records, the first to record him) Elvis Presley wasn’t just another white guy imitating black musicians, he was taking everything he had seen and heard and distilled it into something that was his own. And his legs, hips, and shoulders were shakin’. Teenage girls screamed and the parents panicked. Everyone was watching and listening.
Then he was drafted and sent overseas. By now he had signed a contract with Col. Tom Parker, a move that would forever alter his career and life. When Elvis returned from the Army, Parker decided on a grown-up path: pop crooning, movies, and merch. The revolution he had started was generating records like Rubber Soul, Aftermath, Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde…and there’s Elvis, in Hollywood making movies with lame songs.
But then came the 68 comeback special. Elvis in front of a live TV studio audience, sitting in a circle with Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, and some of the other guys that were there in the beginning, banging out songs. He was decked out in black leather and seemed to be back in his element. Presley’s next album, Elvis In Memphis, had a hit with Suspicious Minds. It could have been a renaissance.
Instead, it was Vegas residencies, oldies tours (imagine being in your 30’s on an oldies tour), plus the never-ending smorgasbord of drugs. The downward spiral had begun.
The Searcher leaves one with a lot of “what ifs”. What if Elvis hadn’t been drafted or at the very least not shipped off to Germany. We weren’t at war at the time. You would think shrewd management could have arranged for him to serve in some capacity and continue working. And then there’s Col. Tom Parker. In the documentary, as well as in history, he does not come off well. What if Elvis had met someone like a Brian Epstien, Andrew Loog Oldham, or Albert Grossman? Instead of encouraging Presley’s artistic curiosity, Parker viewed Elvis as a cash machine to be exploited. While he saw the benefit of merging film, TV, and music, he also stunted advancement. Parker had a financial stake in the only publishing company allowed to funnel (often inferior) songs to Presley. And it’s because of Parker that Elvis never toured Europe. Parker was Dutch, not a U.S. citizen (let alone a real colonel, the title was honorary) and he feared not being able to get back into the country.
Tom Petty observed in the film that there was no map for the roads Elvis was going down. So if there were some mistakes, missteps, that was understandable. Which makes his story, just as important as the music and still serves as a cautionary tale. The movie is also a reminder, especially to a generation that wasn’t alive when he was, that Elvis is important. Even after all these years, one still marvels at his voice, his moves, and dogged determination. The Searcher is packed with photos and home movies many have never seen before. It leaves you with new found admiration and sympathy. Now showing on HBO and well worth your time.