HBO’s Documentary, ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher.’ The Artist Behind the Myth

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*Image from the Internet and is likely copyrighted. Also, it upsets the Rock Chick because the King had blue eyes…

“Everybody get ready, lift up your glasses and sing, I’m standing on the table, I’m proposing a drink to the King.” Bob Dylan, “Summer Nights”

No matter who you are, no matter where you live – North or South, no matter what your politics – right or left, no matter what your party – Republican or Democrat, no matter who you think the President should be, I think there is one thing that all Americans, nay, all humans on the planet can agree on. There is only one King… Elvis Aaron Presley. There was no one who came before him like him and there will never be another Elvis again. I spent my Sunday watching the new exceptional HBO documentary, ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ and I must say, I was extremely moved at this intimate look at the King. I won’t lie, after watching both Part 1 and Part 2, I felt very sorry for Elvis Presley. I will say, without reservation, this is the definitive documentary on the King.

The documentary is narrated by a number of Elvis’ friends, fellow musicians, associates, producers and collaborators. The narration was done by famous folks and not so famous folks. Amongst my favorites were Robbie Robertson (from the Band) and Bruce Springsteen. Although I must say, Springsteen’s comments were so overly intellectual at times they seem almost academic. He’s clearly thought a lot about Elvis. Better yet, Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife narrated a lot of the documentary and her narration allowed a more intimate view into what Elvis was thinking and feeling at different stages in his career, heartbreakingly so. I must say, my favorite of everyone involved was Tom Petty. Petty actually met Elvis on one of his movie sets in Florida when Petty was a kid and he was clearly a fan. Petty’s innate, for lack of a better word, Southern-ness provides unique insight into Elvis and how people thought about him. I love when Petty breaks down some of Elvis’s early vocals from a musician’s viewpoint and you can hear the awe in his voice as he describes Elvis sliding “up and down the scale vocally and having a blast while doing so.”

I fear it’s too easy, all these years down the road, to allow the myth of Elvis and the decline of his latter years with the drugs, the weight gain, the sequined jump suits to fog over what a enormous force Elvis was in rock and roll. It’s easy to forget what a true artist the man was. Sometimes that sad ending we all watched with our own eyes blocks out what we should be listening to with our ears. This documentary helps restore that picture, as Elvis as a singer and live performer. It’s divided into two parts.

The first part starts with Elvis’ birth and upbringing. Elvis’ rise was so seemingly meteoric, that a lot of people feel like he just appeared, fully formed. Nothing could be further from the truth. All during Elvis’ childhood, growing up poor, he was allowed to roam Memphis where he would seek out music – even in places white kids normally didn’t go, like black churches, black blues clubs on Beale Street. Memphis was a place where you could hear blues, R&B, soul music, but also country and bluegrass. Elvis spent all his time growing up acting as a musical sponge, but not only absorbing all those disparate sounds, but melding them together into something brand new. When he walked into Sun Studios, after driving by day after day, it was Elvis who was “looking for Sam Phillips, not Sam Phillips who was looking for Elvis.” Elvis had a musical vision, and Phillips helped him realize it.

After Elvis’ first few singles, which were almost instant hits regionally in the South, Elvis hit the road with his backing band from Sun, the amazing Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black slapping the stand-up bass, and DJ Fontana on drums. His backing band was so intuitive to what Elvis wanted… and Elvis seemed to funnel the music through his body and vocals… the band just sort of watched him and tried to follow along, both live and in the studio. They really had a great chemistry. It was those years on the road, in the south, that Elvis learned how to manipulate and control an audience. Watching the film of him in those early days is just spectacular.

Like all epic tragedies, be they Greek or Shakespeare, you need the hero and you need a villain. For every Othello there’s an Iago. In this story, that villain to Elvis’ hero is clearly Colonel Tom Parker, the Evil Dutchman. Colonel Tom knew how to merchandise stuff and sadly he ended up treating Elvis like “the merch.” We follow Elvis through leaving Sun Records and moving to RCA and making it big. He was always thankful to Colonel Tom for breaking him big, but the rest of the documentary, to me, really centers around the conflict of Elvis the artist vs Colonel Tom the money-guy. Elvis wanted to branch out musically, but Parker owned the publishing and made huge royalties off of Elvis. He rode Elvis up until the time Presley joined the army. John Lennon once said of Elvis, “He was done when he went into the Army.” I always wondered if the US Government drafted Elvis as an attempt to control him…Parker didn’t have Elvis tour or record while he was away, which dumbfounds me. When Elvis got out of the army, he wanted to be an actor, something akin to Marlon Brando. Colonel Parker pushed him toward lighter roles and continued to sign contracts for those fluffy, musical movies Elvis did. They made money, but as Petty says, “those movies were harmful to Elvis.” He was no longer the dangerous rebel, he was just that cheesy movie guy. While he was off in Hollywood from ’60 to ’69 music and the world itself changed. There’s a striking image of Coretta Scott King, marching after MLK’s assassination, passing a theater showing Elvis’ awful movie, ‘Go Away Joe.’ You can’t symbolize how out of touch culturally he was at that point…

As an aside, I did notice how, like Dylan with folk music and Hendrix with blues, when faced with tumultuous times, professional or personal, Elvis always returned to his “home,” and by that I mean Gospel music. Elvis doing “Peace In The Valley” brought back his memories of his mother and his childhood, singing in the church. It was the music that centered him… and nobody does it better. Even I, the biggest heathen you’re going to come across, was moved by the King doing Gospel, but I digress.

As the movies petered out, Elvis, in a rare show of independence lined up the 1968 Come Back Special. If you’ve never seen that show, you need to get the BluRay. Seeing the King shed his movie image, put on black leather and retake his crown is like watching Ali beat Frazier. The Comeback Special is really a lynchpin in the telling of this story. Afterwards, Elvis went into the studio and recorded one of his best albums, From Elvis In Memphis,. Instead of continuing to make music in that vein, Colonel Parker sent him off to Vegas for a residency. Elvis finally grew tired of that so Colonel Parker sent him out on a grueling, seemingly never ending tour because it made money. Elvis wanted to tour in Europe, but Parker, who wasn’t actually a US citizen couldn’t leave the States. So instead he put the insane pressure on Elvis of doing a world-wide, live by satellite broadcast of a concert from Hawaii. I still remember seeing that as a kid.

After that, Elvis just sort of surrendered or more appropriately, gave up. The central question of ‘Elvis Presley – The Searcher’ for me, is what Tom Petty asks early in the 2nd half of the documentary – “Why would Elvis continue to humiliate himself (in the movies) for this man (Colonel Parker)? What was this control Parker had on Elvis?” I get that Elvis was grateful for Parker “breaking him” world wide and making him the biggest star on the planet. My question is why would he allow Parker to snuff out almost every creative instinct Presley had afterward. Why continue doing the movies? Why continue to fuel the kitschy merchandise machine. Presley was a true pioneer, he was plowing in uncharted territory… I just wish he’d been able to break free of such horrid management.

In the end, as I said, Elvis just gave up. He was taking pills to get up for the show and then downers to sleep afterwards. His marriage to Priscilla crumbled. He became more and more isolated… which is what the Colonel wanted… it’s like Presley was an abused spouse. His weight ballooned. The Memphis Mafia was only too happy to enable Presley… The dead look in Presley’s eyes from his latter days will always haunt me. The fire, the joy was all gone. It’s easy to blame Parker, and let’s face it, I’m passionate about Elvis, but even I realize that the King had some culpability here. He could have stopped the merry-go-round at any time. But he didn’t… and we’ll never know why. I hate to think of Elvis as the “Porcelain Monkey” of Warren Zevon’s song.

This is a rich, detailed, fascinating look at Elvis the man and Elvis the artist. It gets beyond the myth and the legend and really focuses on the music. They should be showing this movie in high school music classes as required curriculum.

And while Elvis’ life ended tragically, (I can remember hearing the news in the backseat of my football coach’s car, driving to football practice with my three teammates), tonight, I’ll be standing on a table and “raising a glass to the King.”

 

 

 

 

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