Whatever defining self-expression Elvis Presley sought in his short, storied life, he almost certainly never found. But he was always looking.
"Elvis was a searcher," says ex-wife Priscilla Presley, the keeper of his legacy, at the start of a new HBO documentary produced with the cooperation of Graceland. "It's a part of him that never left."
Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Saturday, 8 ET/PT) examines his explosive rise and fall as a series of creative choices, a retelling of his trailblazing career that's free of fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches or puzzling presidential encounters. Director Thom Zimny takes a leisurely, somewhat academic approach to setting up his story that may be, in the early going, a bit wonky for the casual Elvis fan.
The documentary is far more compelling, and even startling in how it reframes the official narrative around the second half of Elvis’ career. Among its provocative theses:
1. Elvis’ post-Army decline began not with his appearance on Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Elvis special, but with the making of G.I. Blues.
Rock ‘n’ roll fell away in the two years Elvis spent stationed in Germany, and he understood that it wasn’t just he who had aged, but his audience. Still, when he suited up in a tuxedo opposite Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1960, he couldn't contain that crackling sexuality, making sweet eyes at viewers and toying with the arrangement of Witchcraft.
“It was a very conservative move at the time,” says Bruce Springsteen, one of the famous fans interviewed, of seeing Elvis on TV with Sinatra. “Elvis put himself forth as somebody who was not a flash in the pan, but who was in a long line of a tradition of American pop singers. And he was saying there’s a life for Elvis after Elvis.”
New influences of country, R&B, ballads and pop permeated the music when the king of rock ‘n’ roll returned to recording with Elvis Is Back! “He wanted to grow, he wanted to evolve, he wanted to offer something new,” Priscilla says.
But that creative momentum ground to a halt when he was cast in G.I. Blues, illustrated by a discomforting clip of a uniformed Elvis singing Wooden Heart to a puppet. “Already, he’s feeling it, he’s not in control, and this is really early on,” Priscilla says.
2. Colonel Tom Parker masterminded Elvis’ worst decisions.
The creative stagnancy of the middle of Elvis’ career, when he churned out disposable films and recorded subpar material that paid them both a handsome share of publishing profits, is blamed entirely on the wheelings and dealings of Elvis' manager. Later, Parker frustrated his star by confining his concerts to the USA, because — in a bizarre revelation that would come to light years after Elvis’ death — it turned out that Parker was in the country illegally.
None of this is new territory for biographies of Presley’s life, which have long trashed Parker for destroying Elvis’ rock ‘n’ roll credibility. But to hear such criticisms directly from Priscilla and Elvis’ longtime friend Jerry Schilling, both executive producers of the documentary, is astonishing.
“Why was he willing to knowingly humiliate himself for this man, or for the money promised to him by this man?" Tom Petty wonders.
3. The conventional wisdom that Elvis made terrible music in his last years is coolly shot down.
Suffering a crisis of confidence, Elvis couldn’t be enticed into the studio in 1976, and laid down his final tracks in the Jungle Room at Graceland. But one of the songs from those sessions, an anguished interpretation of Hurt that’s heard in the documentary, is as extraordinary as his early recordings.
4. Elvis never stopped caring about doing the best work possible.
There’s remarkable footage of a jumpsuit-clad Presley being hustled off the premises of a concert by a phalanx of bodyguards, as an announcer informs the shrieking crowd that “Elvis has left the building.”
Visibly spent and sweaty, he puts on his tinted glasses as the car speeds away and asks uncertainly, “How was the sound in that building?”
“An artist like Elvis, rather than pretending when he goes on the stage, he’s actually pretending when he’s home to be normal,” Springsteen says. “And when he goes out on stage at night is who he actually is. It’s a very difficult dichotomy.”
5. The drug-addled twilight of Elvis’ life should be forgiven and forgotten.
Priscilla plainly acknowledges that it’s difficult to watch shows from Elvis’ last two years, when incoherent ramblings derailed his efforts to finish songs. “All the light went out of his eyes,” Steve Binder, director of Elvis’ fabled ’68 Comeback Special, says succinctly.
It’s particularly painful to hear Petty discuss Elvis’ drug use, given what’s now known about how prescription painkillers factored into Petty's own death. “Isolation, you know, that brings on the drug abuse,” Petty says. “I think he felt outgunned and gave up.”