In his “Maradonian” life full of talent, fame, excesses, glory and decline, Elvis Presley became a myth, an image, a reference that is more linked to a journey of rise and fall than to the specific details of that journey. There are the great posts, the incunabula, the key moments and the obvious great successes, but most of the time the figure of Elvis does not emerge, in the popular imagination, from that confinement and its disguises. It is difficult, very difficult – as it was for him – to recover his essence, to be able to tell some truth about his life and his career.
In his documentaries – mainly about Bruce Springsteen, but also about Johnny Cash – Thom Zimny has always managed to play on the border between the portrait of the person and the character, between reality and myth. In this case, between Elvis Presley and “Elvis.” He is not a documentary maker trying to reinvent the format of biopics far from it. What he does, in some ways, more closely resembles the work of a literary biographer (this series is ‘organized’ around Peter Guralnick’s excellent books on Presley) than that of a recent ‘professional documentarian’ Try to get out of the big headlines and moments of dramatic impact a bit to go deeper, more complex and contextual.
THE SEARCHER (here presented with the nondescript title of EL REY DEL ROCK AND ROLL, released on HBO in 2018 but now uploaded to Netflix) tries to show Elvis in relation to his times. It is a biography of his career that does not avoid his beats more to be expected, but which does not focus its main attention on it, almost defying an age in which a collection of dramatic, tragic or dramatic moments is celebrated and expected more than anything else. instagram raincoats. Zimny wants to tell Elvis as a character, yes, but more than anything as a product of an era, the crossing of musical, social and personal vectors that made him a myth. Exit Elvis and return to Presley. Or reunite the two back in the same person.
That is why, of the two episodes in this series, the best is the first. There the first stage of the singer is told who, at least in the eyes of the general public, managed to combine disparate traditions such as blues, bluegrass, gospel (black and white) and country to make possible what became known as rock and roll. . The story of the poor white boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, with swift hips, a prodigious voice, and a face that could be angelic and mischievous while adopting, crossing over and distilling different musical essences to patent his own. It’s true: he didn’t invent rock and roll, far from it. But it took him to places that, at least then, he would not have reached without him. And gave him a sex appeal that characterized the genre for decades.
The southern years, with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, are undoubtedly the years of his formation and success, those of consolidating an image and creating a business. The first episode puts the axis in that stage, his passage from there to the big labels, his court to do military service in Germany and his return to the United States. With known images and not so much, recordings (known and not so much) and testimonies of people specialized more in the musical than in the anecdotal / turbulent (Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Tom Petty, many of the musicians who worked with him, producers, famous journalists who wrote about his life and his wife Priscilla), the first part of THE SEARCHER makes a not necessarily revealing but very detailed painting of the Presley from the ’50s.
The second episode covers its most elusive stage: turbulent, extravagant, tedious (musically, for a long time), excessive, full of twists and turns. But even in those little more than 15 years in which his contribution to rock history – which had moved elsewhere – was rather poor, Zimny manages to cast doubt on some of the ideas established regarding that stage. (basically, it was all a great waste of talent) and analyze its ups and downs in detail. The axis – one that the documentary has from the beginning – goes through the television special that he filmed in 1968 and that marked his “return” after more than five years dedicated to making bad films full of bland songs. From there it is that the series goes back and forth between the Presley most attached to his musical passions and the most lost in the ups and downs of his career.
As a good «official documentary», THE SEARCHER avoid some controversial areas of your life. In some issues, this omission is welcome: too much time and too many biographies were lost in the soap opera of his life, its excesses, romances and consumption. In others, he is a bit more capricious, since he avoids certain talk of some strange political ups and downs in his life to try to make a “progressive” painting of his career, a suit that is a bit loose. The chosen “enemy” is the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, and the man he is blamed for having limited Presley’s expressive and creative possibilities, forcing him to become a caricature of himself and away from his more musical interests. genuine.
From the title, THE SEARCHER It implies that Zimny sees Presley as a “seeker,” as someone who tried to break down musical and social barriers in America, moving forward all the time. And, on that journey, Parker is something like her limit, her nemesis, the man who thwarted each and every one of her attempts to change. It may not have been so (the documentary suggests that for a long time Elvis had little or no interest in being “up to date” with the musical changes of the 1960s), but it is clear that there was another possible career there and that it remained a little truncated. Not only because of Presley’s early death but because of a series of artistic and commercial decisions that did nothing more than ruin almost any advance or attempt at change, transforming the artist into a machine to produce money in a permanent recycling plan, especially in the years ” 70’s of Las Vegas shows and grueling tours.
What the documentary recovers, in addition, is the Elvis performer, something that books can only explain and records, infer. And in that sense what THE SEARCHER does is expand that public figure that seems to go, in the popular imagination at least, of the young rock and roll star from the ’50s to the excessive divo of the’ 70s with nothing in between. There are many other Elvises there: the country one, the gospel one, the acoustic one, the bluesman, the operatic one, the singer who understood everything and knew how to do each of those things almost better than anyone. That recovery made in these years of its production of the late ’60s and early’ 70s (see if not the reissues of some of the records of that time, especially the excellent «From Elvis in Nashville«) Allows you to enjoy that artist who was the sum of all the other two. It was Elvis and also Presley. It was the boy from Tupelo in the battered body of a thirty-something. And he was the guy who carried the wisdom of half a century of popular music.