VOL. 133 | NO. 57 | Tuesday, March 20, 2018
HBO Documentary Probes Real Life of Elvis Presley
By Bill Dries
A Memphis screening of the three-hour, two-part HBO documentary on Elvis Presley over the weekend elicited cheers and applause with some somber moments .
Producer Kary Antholis, music producer David Porter, director Thom Zimny, executive producers Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling, and John Jackson, senior vice president of Sony Music collaborated to create the new HBO documentary, “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” which tells the real story of Presley’s career. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
“Elvis Presley: The Searcher” was shown at South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals in Austin, Texas, and Saturday, March 17, at Guest House at Graceland – both in advance of its debut April 14 on HBO.
The project was fueled partly as a reaction to more than 40 years of books and film and television bios, said Priscilla Presley, the entertainer’s ex-wife, who along with Elvis friend Jerry Schilling served as executive producers of the documentary.
“I’ve read all kinds of books, gone through the pages of all kinds of books and gone, ‘Oh my God, something needs to be done’ because of the perspective of others who never even knew him putting their input in,” she said before the Memphis screening. “Elvis didn’t play for the critics. He played for his audience. The critics who were there from the beginning never really stopped trying to pick him apart. And it really wasn’t that complicated. What you saw on stage was who he was.”
The early discussions among Presley, Schilling and HBO about a new documentary included looking at some outtakes from “That’s The Way It Is,” the only documentary about Presley made during his lifetime.
Director Thom Zimny was also aware of the books and other films.
“There’s many films out there and there’s many books out there that focused on personality or events in Elvis’ life,” Zimny said. “What got lost in it is the real Elvis. And the real Elvis is a man who was connected to the music in a deep and spiritual way. Throughout his whole life he was looking and searched for a sound to explore. A lot of Elvis’ history gets condensed into a shorthand that doesn’t do justice to the full journey. My goal for this film was to find the real Elvis.”
There is a brief mention of Presley’s discovery by Sam Phillips and a muted mention of his marriage to and divorce from Priscilla Presley. There is no mention of the Memphis Mafia – the group of men who were a constant presence in Presley’s life after his return from the U. S. Army. There is more focus than in other documentaries and bios on his time in the Army and how Army service impacted his career as rock ’n’ roll changed.
“The Searcher” also focuses heavily on Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker – criticizing how Parker limited Presley’s pursuit of music as an artist for the pursuit of music by the rules of the carnival industry Parker came from.
The judgments of Parker’s negative impact come from fellow entertainers Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson. They, along with Emmylou Harris, were chosen because of the catalytic role Presley’s 1950s recordings had on them at a young age.
Their experience as performers and musicians also informs the commentary about decisions that were made and not made to direct where his career was going.
Parker is heard defending his practices in some rare recordings of interviews, including one in which he denies that he ever vetoed anything Presley wanted to do. That is followed by Schilling citing at least one instance where Parker did just that and Priscilla Presley’s own memories of her ex-husband expressing concerns about the control Parker had over his career.
There are also rare recordings of Presley talking about his unhappiness with the movie roles that kept him from performing and recording anything that was more than a soundtrack. At one point he wonders aloud about time itself changing those kinds of situations.
“It’s coming from the horse’s mouth here,” Priscilla Presley said. “We’re not sugarcoating this at all. We are handling it with great dignity and integrity.”
The context also includes recordings of the folk singer Odetta singing Bob Dylan songs, one of which – “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” – Presley recorded in 1966 that was put on a movie soundtrack album and never released as a single.
The song appears several times as the documentary explores his attempts to choose different and better music than the Hill and Range catalog Presley was locked into at that point because of an agreement Parker made.
In another segment, the film exhibits another major find in the archives – a recording of Presley’s mother, Gladys Presley, singing a gospel song in a home recording. Super 8 films of Presley in Las Vegas in the 1950s were from the Graceland archives and had never been processed before Zimny did it for the film.
“We went deep in the collectors’ world. We went deep inside the vault,” he said. “Every single day there was a new discovery, a new gem.”
The documentary goes deepest at the turns in Presley’s trajectory – offering more about the effects of a decision than an explanation. So at key moments, like the 1972 Aloha From Hawaii satellite television special, the audience watching the screening Saturday applauded and cheered at the end of “American Trilogy” and then grew quiet as the film examined what happened after the television special for better and worse and sent Presley on the road for the last four years of his life constantly touring.
The outtakes from “That’s The Way It Is” of Presley preparing for his 1970s opening in Las Vegas are used in the HBO film as well.
“It’s a story about Elvis, from Elvis,” said Schilling.
Zimny said it’s also about more than the impact Presley had or other people’s encounters with him.
“We knew that Elvis had a strong connection in Memphis and a strong musical understanding of the genres of rhythm and blues and country,” Zimny said. “And what we wanted to do was explore all those details. Those details give you the ideas of Elvis being a hardworking musician who had a passion for music. And we left behind all of the stories that we’ve heard before.”
Stax singer-songwriter and producer David Porter was another voice in the documentary, approached by HBO after his work as a music consultant for the recent made-in-Memphis series “Quarry.”
Porter and his songwriting partner, Isaac Hayes, welcomed Priscilla Presley to Memphis as a favor in the early 1960s at the Manhattan Club, a favorite early Elvis haunt.
“There’s a long background,” Porter said. And in the film, Porter is among the voices that provide context for Presley’s connection to the city’s rhythm and blues and soul music communities.
“This is so different in so many respects,” Porter said of The Searcher.
Porter was also in the building in the early 1970s when Presley recorded at Stax for a set of songs that were dispersed over several albums that followed.
“I was producing the Sweet Inspirations at the same time in our studio B and Elvis was recording in studio A,” he recalled. “I can tell you it was a tremendous production. Elvis was thrilled to be in that studio.”