Elvis Presley was a man who found insurmountable success, but it was a near-constant struggle to maintain it. HBO's new documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, explore these successes and, more importantly, how Presley regained his footing almost every time he began to slip.
The two-part film, which premieres Saturday night on HBO, examines the life of "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" from his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, to his final recording sessions at his Memphis, Tennessee, home.
At the start, viewers are thrown into the Mid South just as rock 'n' roll is taking shape. It spends a bit of time showcasing the black musicians coming out of Memphis that inspired him, then things shift into the tales Elvis aficionados are familiar with. The Sun Studios sessions, his RCA contract, his numerous television appearances and his draft into the U.S. Army are all touched on in the first half of the doc, and his comeback, film career, second comeback and later years are discussed in the second half.
While the skeleton of the film takes a biological and mostly chronological approach to Presley's life, that is not the appeal of The Searcher, nor its primary focus. The core of the film is to paint a portrait of Presley as man, inspired by his faith and family, who was more himself on the stage than anywhere else.
Director Thom Zimny does this through archival photos and video of Presley (both behind-the-scenes and on public platforms) paired with audio interviews with those who were either close to him or were influenced by his work. There are also a handful of archived interviews with Presley's longtime producer Sam Philips, Presley's longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker and, of course, the "King" himself.
This blend of history paired with emotional color steers the film into something greater than an entry level production. Testimony from bandmates and his longtime partner Priscilla Presley inject a sense of heart into the story. Presley was never a completely open book, but they, more than anyone, understood what meant most to him, and that was his music and how it connected him to others.
It is easy to only see Presley as a highly commercial product. From the countless low-quality films later in his career to the wide-scale merchandising that began at his peak and has continued to this day, Presley's legacy is one of success and larger-than-life appeal.
The Searcher mostly succeeds at giving fans a glimpse at the man behind all that glam and flash surrounding him. It does this my focusing the artistic journey Presley took throughout his career and how it all relates to his family and their humble beginnings in Tupelo.
The only cost of this focus is that Presley's flaws — while acknowledged — are not as explored as they should be.
At one point in the film, commentators touch on Presley's growing pill addiction that eventually led to his death. However, it is quickly brushed past as the conversation moves into the recording sessions for "Burning Love."
"He had many afflictions, and he hurt himself in many ways," music critic Jon Landau says at this point. "But, it was a core in there that, if you let it, shined through and sometimes in the most unlikely places."
That sentiment seems to be the philosophy behind The Searcher, which is fine. The film's explorations of Presley's highs are worthwhile, well-executed and a compelling watch for the Elvis faithful. However, here's hoping for an equally thorough project that also dives into his lows and struggles balancing life as a family man, an addict and the most famous man on the planet.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher airs Saturday at 8-11:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. It will also be available to stream on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and other streaming platforms partnered with HBO.
Photo Credit: HBO