"The basic mistake that people make about Elvis was that he came along and got lucky," record producer Ernst Jørgensen says in the new two-part HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher. "No, he didn't get lucky. He worked hard and he created the music with great musicians. He had a drive that motivated him, and it was there from Day One."
And that's what this film, directed by Thom Zimny and airing Saturday, sets out to instill in viewers: that the King was a driven man who combined his deep love for rhythm & blues, country and gospel music into a new genre that changed pop culture forever. It's an important message that's often gotten lost in the decades since Presley's 1977 death, overshadowed by tabloid accounts of his last years.
So if you're going into The Searcher expecting either new surprises or bombshell revelations, you may come away disappointed. But if you're looking for a more balanced look at Presley's life that zeroes in on his music and impact, the film absolutely delivers. While The Searcher covers well-known highlights of Presley's life and career, it takes a more measured and thoughtful approach in its treatment of Presley, the artist. Not only does The Searcher offer behind-the-scenes stories of his meteoric rise, and many setbacks and comebacks; it also provides musical, historical and societal context for the times that shaped Presley, touching on his religious upbringing, the cultural influence of Memphis during his youth, and issues of race and sex in the late Fifties amid his electrifying and controversial TV appearances. The wise use of off-camera interviews with his former wife Priscilla Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Robertson and the late Tom Petty – along with commentary by writers, scholars, and Presley's friends and colleagues – allows the viewer to concentrate solely on Presley's story through music, words and images.
"He was a light for all of us," Petty says in the film. "We all owe him for going first into battle. He had no road map and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. ... We should dwell on what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music." Here are 10 takeaways from The Searcher.
1. From an early age, Presley soaked up every influence he could find – even nonmusical ones.
Since his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis was intensely drawn to things he was curious about, especially music. "My mother and dad both loved to sing," he would recall. "They tell me when I was about three or four years old, I got away from them in church and walked up in the front of the choir and started beating time." As a kid, he would go to black churches at night and listen to gospel music and sermons. After Presley and his parents moved to Memphis in 1948, he went to the clubs on Beale Street where he was attracted to the city's lively black music and culture. What was unique about Presley, as Tom Petty pointed out, was that he studied black music at a time when not many white people were that interested. "Elvis was a student," says Stax Records songwriter David Porter in the film. "Elvis would hang out at the Flamingo Room. When you realize Elvis knew where Beale Street was and what that all meant, you could sense he was different."
In addition to rhythm & blues, Presley was captivated by gospel acts such as the Blackwood Brothers. Overall, "Elvis picked up everything," close friend Jerry Schilling recalls. "He was the most eclectic human being I have ever been around. He would pick up something from another singer or he would pick up something from a guy walking down the street and he'd say, 'Jerry look at that walk. I'm gonna use that walk.'"
2. It was really Elvis who was looking for Sam Phillips, rather than the other way around.
As Jerry Schilling explains in the film, Presley knew about the acts produced by Sam Phillips, the founder of Memphis' Sun Records and Sun Studios, among them Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas and the Prisonaires. Around this time, Presley was driving a truck for the Crown Electric company. "I had seen him go by in his Crown Electric truck a number of different times," Phillips later remembered, "because we had an open storefront. He would go by and go back – and go by and go back. This guy would not come in the studio and ask me to audition him for nothing." Eventually Presley walked into Sun and made his first recordings there, kicking off a relationship between himself and Phillips that would prove crucial in the early part of the singer's career.
At first Phillips wasn't impressed when Presley sang conventional ballads; he felt the 19-year-old had something raw but didn't know exactly how to channel it. On July 5th, 1954, during a break after a long, unproductive recording session with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley delivered an impromptu uptempo performance of Arthur Crudup's blues number "That's All Right," with the rest of the band vamping along. It was a breakthrough moment. "It shocked me because here was a classic blues number," Phillips later recalled, "and here was a white cat not imitating or mimicking but just putting his feel into it. It blew me away." The recorded version of "That's All Right" became an overnight hit in Memphis thanks to radio DJ Dewey Phillips. "Everybody thinks Sam was looking for a white boy to do black music," Schilling says, "but Elvis was looking for Sam Phillips."
3. Colonel Parker both helped and hampered Elvis' career.
Without question, the main antagonist in The Searcher is Presley's infamous and controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Managing country singer Hank Snow at the time, Parker booked Presley as the opening act on Snow's tour and saw that Elvis was more popular with audiences than the headliner. Afterward, afraid he would miss out on managing Presley if the singer got bigger, Parker decided to hitch his wagon to the young star. Presley viewed Parker as the man who could elevate his career beyond what Sam Phillips or Presley's previous manager Bob Neal could do. Through his wheeling and dealing, Parker took over as Presley's manager and then orchestrated RCA's purchase of Elvis' Sun contract. Thanks to his skills as a promoter, Parker was able to secure Presley's appearances on television programs like Stage Show, hosted by brothers Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and then negotiate contracts on behalf of his star with the movie studios. Through music publishing company Hill and Range, Parker and Presley had a financial interest when it came to what songs the singer recorded. The Colonel also didn't want anyone to upstage his client – even actress-singer Ann Margret, Elvis' dynamic co-star in the movie Viva Las Vegas.
Presley had always wanted to perform to international audiences, but with the exception of some concerts in Canada in 1957, he never played abroad during his lifetime. This was most likely because Parker wasn't a U.S. citizen but reportedly an illegal immigrant from Holland; the manager was afraid that if he traveled with Presley, he wouldn't be able to return to the States. As a compromise, in 1973, Parker arranged for Presley to play a concert in Hawaii via satellite TV that would be seen by audiences all over the world. "The Colonel was not interested in Elvis becoming too independent a thinker," The Searcher producer Jon Landau says. "He needed Elvis to think that everything good came from the Colonel, and anything bad came from imagined enemies. He kept that con game going for much too long."
Yet there was a rare moment when Elvis briefly did rebel against the Colonel. During the production of the '68 comeback special, according to show's director Steve Binder, the Colonel noticed that there was no Christmas song in the set list. He told the production team that his star wanted one on the program and said, "Don't you Elvis?" Binder remembered Presley with his hands crossed and head down replying, "Yes, sir." "I watched Elvis cower to Parker," Binder says. "The Colonel says, 'OK, then, we're all in agreement.' Elvis walks out the door, head goes up, a lot of energy, and he jams me in the ribs and says, 'Fuck him.'"
4. Elvis' electrifying stage presence sparked what one observer calls "fear in the body."
In his early years as a performer, Presley had an uncanny ability to read his audiences; whenever he did something that elicited a reaction from the crowd, he would repeat it. The excitement that he generated on tour carried over into his wild, energetic appearances on The Milton Berle Show and Stage Show, both in 1956. "That's when we saw somebody who can sing better than other people, could move better than other people, had style better than other people," Robbie Robertson says in the film. "In the pop world, when this came along, it broke glass."
Not everybody was receptive to Presley. Steve Allen, the star of his eponymous show who had a dislike for rock & roll, booked the star to appear on the program and arranged for him to sing "Hound Dog" to an actual hound in an attempt to embarrass him. Presley's movements on television also generated controversy especially from those saw them as profane, including Priscilla's parents. "After that, our parents wouldn't let us see him," she explains. "Ministers told our parents, 'Keep him away from your children. He's the devil.' So he's forbidden fruit."
Presley's emergence came about during a time when Southerners feared "race mixing" "If you see a large social anxiety on the horizon there's probably issues of body and control involved," writer Warren Zanes notes. "Young people, whether they were physically mixing black and white, or not, they were culturally mixing black and white. The way they were expressing themselves, the movements in space as that mixing happened, were sexual in nature. In the case of Elvis, the fearful response had a racial component and had a sexual component. It's all about fear in the body."
5. Elvis had very clear ideas about how to transfer his onstage charisma to the studio.
Elvis Presley was an intensely charismatic performer, but he often doesn't get credit for the amount of work he put into executing his vision of how his music should sound or be presented. In one example, by the time he recorded his RCA first album, Elvis Presley, Elvis had already learned much from his work with Sam Phillips in terms of the song selections and arrangements. He brought that prior studio and touring experience to the studio and knew what he wanted the sound to be, right down to the slapback echo that heard on his major hit "Heartbreak Hotel." In a sense, while RCA executive Steve Sholes was listed on the album credits as the producer, Presley was really the man in charge.
"What you saw from Elvis was that being in a recording studio or being onstage is exactly the same thing to him," producer Bones Howe, who worked on the '68 comeback special, says in the film. "He was always a real organic part of the music ... extremely animated when he sang, never stood still. And the guys shifted right into that mode that Elvis was in. If something wasn't working right or it was too slow or too fast, they all looked to him and then he would move to the music. If the music was right, he was a show out there. He was a captivating person, and nobody made suggestions to Elvis."
Presley's leadership also translated onstage. Members of his legendary early band – guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana – all took their musical cues from the singer, especially during those early television appearances. "When you look at those television performances," Bruce Springsteen says in the film, "you see the band watching Elvis, they all got their eyes on Elvis. That was essential to the way the band swung, he's pushing his musicians ... with his moves."
During the Vegas era of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Presley assembled another great cast of musicians, known as the Taking Care of Business (TCB) band, which included guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ronnie Tutt. Archival footage from the documentary shows Presley directing the band and the backing singers in an arrangement of the Bee Gees' "Words." Even at this point in his career, Presley was still choosing an eclectic array of songs that meant something to him – not just his old hits but also contemporary pop tunes as well as gospel and country numbers. "I personally went to him," Tutt recalls, "and said, 'Elvis, I wanted to know if you wanted me to try to duplicate classic songs.' He said, 'Absolutely not. Just do what you do. That's why you're here.' I thought it was good that he would try different songs that he liked the sound of."
6. Presley remained a mama's boy throughout his life.
Presley's mother Gladys was always protective of her son after his twin brother Jesse was stillborn. During the Depression era, Gladys and Elvis had to fend for themselves when her husband Vernon was imprisoned for forgery. After Elvis achieved success as a singer, he purchased Graceland as a gift for his parents, but especially for Gladys; as Priscilla Presley says in the film, Elvis remembered how hard she worked and he wanted to be the good son. When Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1958 and assigned to serve in Germany, Gladys constantly worried that her son was going into war despite his attempts to reassure her. Tragically, while Elvis was in Texas during basic training, Gladys became ill and later died. Even several years after Elvis' mother's death, her clothes and other possessions still remained at Graceland. "The loss was the most devastating time in his life," Pricilla says. " He matured a lot because of the loss of his mother. It was unbearable for him during that time."
7. Elvis' military career stalled his career – but led to a meeting with his future wife.
Presley's induction into the U.S. Army in 1958 brought a halt to the hysteria he generated two years earlier; in retrospect, the idea of the biggest star in the world getting drafted seemed unusual, given that the U.S. wasn't at war at the time and not many men were drawn into service. According to Ernst Jørgensen in the documentary, the draft fulfilled the Colonel's desire to present Presley as the good American boy serving his country. The Colonel even requested that his star didn't get special treatment while serving his military duties.
Meanwhile, RCA Records pressured Parker to have Presley record more music before he left the States for Germany. Instead, the Colonel only released a few songs rather than flood the market to stoke public interest in the singer. Presley was under orders from the Colonel not to make new music because he wouldn't be able to promote it (in hindsight, it was probably due to the Colonel's complicated immigration issues). Says music journalist Alan Light: "This approach to Elvis' career was preying on his vulnerability. This was certainly an opportunity for the Colonel to fully seize the role of parent [and] mentor, the one person who could take him through this difficult time and lead him out the other way."
The two-year military stint in Germany was a period of uncertainty for Presley, with the star worrying about what would happen to him when he did return to the States. While in Germany, he took uppers to get him through his lonely service. There were a few bright spots for Elvis during his time in the Army: he befriended fellow soldier Charlie Hodge, who himself was a gospel singer, so the two had a musical connection. Most importantly, during a party, Presley met a young Priscilla Beaulieu, whose Air Force captain stepfather was stationed in Germany. "Elvis was sitting in chair and saw me," recalled Priscilla, "and said, 'Oh, what do we have here?' He started playing the piano ... and I smiled at him. Three days later, I get a call that Elvis would like to see me again. And the rest was history."
8. Elvis had hopes of becoming a serious actor but found the movie business to be a serious drag.
The Searcher heavily emphasizes how Presley's appearances in numerous formulaic, unremarkable movies for most of the 1960s harmed his music career. According to Priscilla, around the time he made his first four movies in the late Fifties (Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole, the latter being his favorite), Presley was training to be a serious actor in the vein of Marlon Brando and James Dean; he took it upon himself to learn the other actors' lines. Presley was disheartened upon learning that he would have to sing songs for those films, something that would later be a pattern for the rest of his movie career. There were a few exceptions when Presley showed his acting range in less-music heavy dramas like Wild in the Country and Flaming Star, but typically he had no script approval and was singing songs that were tailored to the plot. "The humdrum movies he was given – boy chases girl, boy gets girl, they get married and it's happily ever after – that was not Elvis Presley," Priscilla explains. "He was not that man. He was much deeper that that. ... After a movie, he felt trapped. He dreaded the next script because he knew it would be the same thing over and over again." Red West, a longtime friend of Presley, sums up it best: "This was not his music. It was killing his recording career because these were movie songs."
9. Elvis almost backed out of the '68 comeback special.
"There is no road map at this point as to what a rock & roller does when he gets older," says Tom Petty in the film, referring to Elvis' lost years in the Sixties. "The Beatles had each other ... and Elvis was totally alone. There was no one vaguely his equal; there was nobody he could bounce anything off of." Even as Presley was still making movies and had albums and singles on the charts, he was less of a creative force by this point in the decade compared to his popular successors such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan. "He was struggling with what to do next ... trying to figure out his purpose again," Priscilla says. "It was very difficult to watch."
That malaise set the stage for the NBC television special Elvis, which aired in December 1968 – a moment widely considered to be the biggest comeback in Elvis' career. A lot was riding on this television appearance, as it was his first performance before an audience in seven years. Elvis was extremely nervous about how he would be received. "This was his career, this was his life, this was the moment of realization," says Priscilla. "This was it, this was going to be a complete failure or it will change everything."
But as revealed in the documentary, Presley's much-anticipated return to performing on the television show came very close to being scrapped. Steve Binder, the director of Elvis, recounts how the singer summoned him to the makeup room just prior to the first taping. "I said, 'What's the problem?'" Binder recalls. "'The problem is I changed my mind, I don't want to do this. ... I don't remember anything I sang in the dressing room. I don't remember any stories that I told. My mind is a blank, Steve. Let's just call it off. It's not gonna happen.' I said, 'Elvis, I never asked you to do anything that you don't want to do. But you've got to go out there.'"
Fortunately, Presley went through with it and emerged relaxed and confident. His powerful performances – highlighted by the 'unplugged' setting with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana – not only summed up his life and music up to that point, but reminded audiences what had made him so potent a decade earlier. Bruce Springsteen distinctly recalled where he was when the Elvis special aired. "I can remember exactly where our TV was set up in the dining room," he says, "the exact place I was sitting. It was one of those things that's been imprinted on my memory forever." Priscilla Presley recalls that she and Elvis were watching the premiere of the special in silence, and then telephone calls and the favorable reviews came in. "It was so good to see him smile again," she says.
There's also a poignant backstory to the special. In the tumultuous year of 1968, Presley was moved upon hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. "We were making a movie at MGM when we heard on the radio about Martin Luther King," Schilling says. "King was that hope to bring us all together, and Elvis knew that. Elvis looked down and said, 'He [King] always told the truth.'" A few months later, when Presley was working with the production team of the '68 television special, they heard on the TV in the office that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles. "Elvis picked up a guitar, started playing and talking a mile a minute," show writer Chris Bearde remembers. "He said, 'I want you to understand me, because this is a moment in time when we'll all have to understand each other.'" That provided the emotional context for "If I Can Dream," the dramatic show-stopping number that concluded the special.
10. Vegas was the beginning of the end for Elvis.
To its credit, The Searcher takes care not to sensationalize Presley's physical health issues and eventual death. But the film's more measured approach doesn't diminish the heartbreaking and tragic aspects of the singer's final years. Presley's decline could be traced to his long engagements at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969; they took an emotional toll and made him feel like a prisoner in the city, where he spent much of his time at the hotel. Plus, the audiences he was playing to in Vegas weren't exactly his kind of crowd. "Back in those days, there was a dinner show and then a late show," his former pianist Tony Brown explains. "The only people who could afford the upfront seats were the high rollers. Elvis needed connection with the audience, and [in] Vegas, it was a very reserved rich crowd dressed up for the Elvis show. It frustrated Elvis that he couldn't quite seem to get the mayhem going."
From the early-to-mid-Seventies, Presley was performing over 100 shows a year; he gained weight and grew more dependent on prescription drugs. Around this time, his marriage to Priscilla disintegrated. Drummer Ronnie Tutt sayd in the film that Presley was actually reluctant to record what would turn out to be one of his biggest hits, the upbeat and soulful "Burning Love." "We basically tried to influence him to do more rock & roll," he says. "'Burning Love' had some potential. He never felt comfortable with it because he had a hard time with those lyrics." For Priscilla, those last years of Elvis in concert were painful due to the physical and emotional turmoil he was experiencing: "Sometimes he wouldn't get through a song. I don't know why he went onstage. They're just hard to watch. Sometimes I think it was better if they had just cancelled the show."
Toward the end, in 1976, Presley made his final recordings at home, in a space later known as the Jungle Room, because he refused to go to a proper recording studio ("The studio had to come to him," says Larry Strickland, a member of the Stamps Quartet vocal group). Some of the musicians involved in those last recordings recalled the RCA mobile recording truck parked outside of the mansion and the furniture removed inside the den to accommodate the sessions. Sometimes Presley was unavailable while the musicians were waiting and wouldn't come down until the wee hours of the morning. During the Jungle Room sessions, Presley recorded one of his final songs, "Hurt," a dramatic ballad. "I think he's feeling very hurt," says Tom Petty. "He was very down, he was very alone. ... He's no longer Elvis Presley, he was Elvis."