Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018)

Directed by Thom Zimny

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Elvis’ story is a tragic one though perhaps the most well-known archetype of the rags to riches to untimely celebrity death story we’ve become acquainted with.  The King was around long enough to experience multiple dramatic shifts in his career, and yet he died young enough to make us wonder what could have been.  Elvis Presley: The Searcher is an informative, enlightening view into Presley’s life for someone like me who was only familiar with the broad strokes.

He found success young, at around 20 years old, while working with Sam Phillips at Sun Records.  For the next couple years he was on top of the world before the last couple years of the 50’s took him into the service in Korea.  When he came back to the states he became a movie star, working in sometimes good, often underwhelming Hollywood musicals which took him away from his roots.

This culminated in the ’68 Comeback Special after which Elvis experienced a career resurgence into the 70’s before he became a Las Vegas mainstay.  In 1977 he died at Graceland, a larger than life figure who had suffered for his fame as much as he gained from it.  He and his wife, Priscilla, split up a few years before, and the Elvis we see at the end of his life was a shut in, insulated from life and the public by both his own image and the work of his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

The documentary paints a captivating picture not only of Elvis but also of the world at the time.  He is considered the first ‘rock’ musician, borrowing heavily from gospel tradition and popular black music, bringing it to the mainstream.  His early success threatened people of a certain age and conservative mindset, and this happened to play out at the same time as certain schools began to be integrated.

Elvis’ early music was a selected example of “race mixing,” and many people didn’t like it.  The same guy who would control the audience and intimidate an older demographic is the same guy who later returned to recording gospel music when contemporary music would seem to have passed him by.  In the span of a single decade he goes from being the “it” musician to struggling to keep up with the times as folk and rock acts like Bob Dylan and The Beatles took center stage.

There is so much to take in from Elvis’ cultural importance and his larger than life image that it’s easy to miss what’s underneath.  Even the documentary somewhat glosses over the human side of Elvis.  We know he was a sensitive ‘momma’s boy,’ as a kid, he was despondent when his mother passed, he eventually married Priscilla and got divorced, but that was about it.

Maybe the documentary didn’t gloss over it, in fact, because what we’re told about Elvis is that there was no room within his fame to live a normal life.  Relationships suffered because of who he had become.  Once he was a famous musician he toured all over the country, and once he became a Vegas regular his routine consisted only of shuffling back and forth between the stage and the hotel.

It’s really quite a haunting portrait of a man.  The Elvis I see in his later years looks like a man trapped in someone else’s body.  The young, energetic singer with soul found himself stuck in a place far from the rest of the world.  Tom Parker seems to be a big reason why, the biggest example of the ways people mooch off the fame of others.  Elvis’ early success was like a fire in a dark forrest, attracting the scent of unseen predators all around.

He was turned from an artist into a commodity, and the documentary lets us know that this was never how it was supposed to go down.  Elvis in the 60’s found himself stuck in unwelcome studio contracts that sought to maximize his value.  This kept him away from the stage, where he seemed to feel most at home, and stuck him on movie sets to play passable roles with slowly decreasing box office results.

Even today Elvis lives on because of this image that was cultivated half a century ago.  It’s a bit strange, even discomforting to know that the thing that probably killed him is very much in the public eye today.  We feed off of celebrity in ways we don’t like to admit, making deities out of ordinary people because they can do a thing or two better than most others.

The documentary consists of interviews with other musicians, some of whom call attention to the fact that Elvis paved the way for more artists.  He was like a gladiator charging into battle, taking all the heat from the enemy while others could walk a little more comfortably in his wake.

Even Evis’ career seems like a bloated parody of contemporary fame.  He graced the Ed Sullivan show like The Beatles, he starred in movies like John Wayne, he had a rock-laden comeback special that looks like a Rolling Stones concert film, and he made famous his Memphis Graceland home, like the wonderland in which Michael Jackson lived.

When you think of Elvis you may picture the Jailhouse Rock years or you may picture the Vegas days.  He’s a man whose fame is hard to really fathom.  He’s taken for granted like so many other famous people, his image duplicated all over the world whether in movies or real life.  You see people dressed like him on Hollywood Boulevard, you see Andy Kaufman doing an Elvis impression, and you see him in movies like Bubba Ho-Tep or referenced in ones like Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.  He’s an icon, and the worship he still sees today feels somehow like the misunderstood celebration of holidays that really shouldn’t exist (Columbus Day).

So Elvis is just a fascinating figure and a warning sign for anyone who craves fame just for being famous.  It’s like the lottery curse you occasionally hear about.

Up Next: Shoah (1985), Interstellar (2014), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

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