Long Live the King: HBO’s New Elvis Presley Documentary Looks Beyond the Legend

“At 50, everyone has the face he deserves,” George Orwell famously said. Well, a half-century after his renowned 1968 comeback TV special, what is the public face of Elvis Presley, the man who transformed the music and culture of the 20th century? A generation or two ago, Elvis—always “Elvis;” rarely “Presley”—existed mostly as a kitsch artifact; a wink-and-a-nod reference that you were in on the joke. Today, he’s little-played and little-discussed—a fact that would be astounding to anyone old enough to remember his incendiary rise.

HBO’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher, a two-part, three-hour documentary that focuses on Presley’s performance and artistry rather than his mere legend or his well documented decline before his early death in 1977, aims to correct that. The film gathers a wealth of primary source material, from home movies to newsreels to studio outtakes to old audio interviews with those close to Presley, and layers them with new commentary from the likes of Bruce Springsteen (his manager, Jon Landau, produced The Searcher), Tom Petty, and Emmylou Harris, along with two key members of Presley’s so-called Memphis Mafia—the rotating group of friends and associates who protected, served, and entertained Presley for decades—Red West and Jerry Schilling. Perhaps best of all, Presley’s former wife Priscilla’s narration, interspersed throughout, adds nuance and insight, humanity, and a genuine pathos to a story that’s been more traditionally told in recent decades in scandalous tabloid headlines and sleazy tell-all memoirs.

To be sure, this is the approved-by-the-estate version of Presley’s life and career. We’re spared from toxicology reports, video clips of the King mumbling incoherently on the Vegas stage, and inside scoops on who he was sleeping with. That said, The Searcher pulls few punches when it comes to evaluating Presley’s take-the-money-and-run film career, or the corrosive influence that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had on him in later years, which essentially made Presley an innocent bystander forced to sit back and watch the electric arrival of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and others on the world’s stage while waiting to record the soundtrack for the next Elvis-ploitation film.

What we’re treated to instead is the rara avis of a serious attempt—with a serious budget and a serious amount of time to unfold—to grapple with a singular performer and artist the likes of which the world will never see again. While Presley’s 1968 comeback special serves as something of a through line in the documentary—and does indeed represent a kind of high-water mark of Elvis’s later career (along with the one-off record he recorded just afterward, From Elvis in Memphis), it will always be his virtually sui generis debut recordings with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios that spellbind.

The Searcher’s early examples of Presley’s gift are enough to send a shiver up the spine. While the knock on Presley—aside from his dissolute later years, that is—has always been that, unlike artists like Dylan or The Beatles, he didn’t write his own stuff, that fails to account for the ripping, transformative alchemy of his early work. Listen to Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” followed by Presley’s version. If that doesn’t send a joyous shiver up your spine, The Searcher likely isn’t meant for you; if it does, fire up some peanut butter and banana sandwiches and settle back for an experience.

Source: https://apple.news/A2wYk6AtvSveECx2TvRhusg