When anyone is made a sovereign of anything, a great weight is likely to fall on his shoulders. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, was no different during his reign. The HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher takes a different approach in its analysis of the long and tumultuous career of the man whose hips thrust rock ’n’ roll into the mainstream. Some may see this as yet another documentary on the King and think there is little more to learn about the humble country boy from Tupelo, Miss. And yet, this documentary digs deeper as it attempts to unveil more about the philosophy of the man and the way that philosophy made him a legend of music.
The most pervasive message of the two-part series is Presley’s unwavering openness to change, an openness that may have done him in in the end. In the early days of his career, he was an adaptive, eclectic dreamer, taking in all musical influence he could get his hands on. He listened to the blues, bluegrass, soul, gospel, and country. From each, he took morsels of inspiration and, without a hint of inauthenticity, crafted about himself his own style from this smattering of Southern styles and black music. As a progenitor of more modern forms of rock ’n’ roll, Presley set the stage from those who would come before him, mimicking not his style, but his method of creation and ingenuity in the artform.
Walking down the street, Presley once stopped a friend and motioned to a man across the way. Remarking on the man’s particular gait, Presley expressed a desire to use that walk, to make it his own. A peculiar notion for the time, Presley was unabashed in taking and remodeling the everyday. For him, life was much more about using the outside world to reflect what he always knew was inside of himself.
Touching on the latter half of Presley’s career, specifically his oft dismissed film forays, marriage, and military service, there is a certain level of solemnity given to these subjects. The youthful tone of self-discovery of Presley’s older work is seen to atrophy slightly. In no way, as many in the documentary point out, did this diminish the impact of his voice, but the level of vivacity was less polished. Marked no doubt by time, but also by experience, the man who once was on the cutting edge of sound and swagger was getting on in years, and others were taking his place (namely those of the British Invasion). Could he become something else, on the big screen or elsewhere, without losing himself in the process? The question does not seem to be answered by Presley himself, or by anyone sifting through the volumes of his life.
The documentary itself is rife with monolithic rock and blues performers and producers, as well as people graced at various times to be in the presence of the King. The great Bruce Springsteen, and the late Tom Petty are among the most prolific analyzers of the impact and psychology of Presley, no doubt using their own careers as tangential connections to the life and legacy of their ancestral rocker.
Priscilla Presley plays an integral role in the more intimate personal ideas of the King. Her commentary often feels like the words of the man himself, coming out of the ether of time to tells us just what was happening during the plain summer of 1958 or the troubling thought of 1972.
What is abundantly clear is that the story of Elvis Presley: The Searcher is about the man as he was, not as the media presented him. There is little in terms of what the media said he was doing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Instead, there is more in terms of his vision for that day. It treats Presley as a musical fanatic with expansive tastes rather than a merger of cultures.
In his career, Presley was searching for something out in the world and in himself. His noble pursuit of self-discovery is emblematic not only of the man he was, but of the man many of us aspire to be.
Featured Image by HBO