Elvis Presley: The Searcher, a 3.5 hour documentary which premiered on HBO on April 14, does a great service in giving Elvis credibility for his natural talent and ambition in becoming the biggest entertainer of the 20th century, but it doesn’t go far enough.
However, one of the main points emphasized in the documentary was that Elvis was the first “televisual” star, and yet the filmmakers were extremely skimpy in their use of live performance footage. Throughout the documentary, there was too much TELLING me that Elvis was a great passionate singer and not enough SHOWING me that he was.
I believe wholeheartedly with the concept of the film, but the spirit of Elvis was missing somehow. When compared to documentaries like Elvis ’56 and He Touched Me: The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley: The Searcher offers a lot of educational information, but falls flat in showcasing Presley’s charisma and magic.
The main flaw is that there are not enough clips of Elvis singing for longer than 30 seconds, especially in Part One of the film. To truly appreciate the King of Rock and Roll, the audience needs to hear and see a FULL performance of Presley singing, without the excessive commentary drowning out his singing voice.
For example, in Presley’s 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show, not one, not two, but three people are talking over the song during the one-and-a-half minute clip. This was one of the most electrifying live performances that Presley did, and yet, the magic of the moment is lost by too many people chattering over his performance.
The one segment that really baffles me is the choice not to show any of Presley’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1956 or 1957. We hear Elvis singing “Peace in the Valley” but don’t see that electrifying TV performance. Maybe the producers thought everyone has already seen these clips. But if this documentary is being touted as the “definitive” film on Elvis, how could they leave out the most famous performances he ever did?
Also, another disappointing choice is that the director chose to crop the film to narrow CinemaScope dimensions, which does not bode well for older television footage shot in the square-shaped 4:3 format.
As one reviewer wrote: “A lot of the time, we are literally seeing about 60 percent of what was there originally, often masked so that shots of groups of people can only show one person’s head while slicing off everyone else’s at the forehead or upper lip.”
One interesting choice is the photograph of Elvis used for the cover image of the film. The photo is from a test shoot for the 1960 movie Flaming Star. Initially, the producers considered having Elvis wear brown contact lenses since his character was half Native American. But that decision was nixed in favor of filming Elvis with his natural blue eye color.
The highlight of the film is Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty discussing in-depth details about Presley from the beginning to the end of his career. While there were many other people interviewed for the film, it almost became an indirect conversation between The Boss and Petty discussing what made Elvis so great. It was refreshing to hear their perspectives on Presley’s career.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher starts out with footage of Elvis on the ’68 Comeback Special and ends with a full performance of “If I Can Dream.” The film keeps going back to the ’68 Special throughout the 3.5 hours as a clever way to tie the film together.
As Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling said in interviews promoting the film, they believe this is the “definitive” film on Elvis. However, in my opinion, this just won’t cut it if you are showing the film to someone who has never seen or heard Elvis before.
Click here for the track listing to the Elvis Presley: The Searcher soundtrack
For more fascinating Elvis Presley facts, read a free excerpt of the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music