Review: Elvis Presley: The Searcher needed a little less conversation and a little more action

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.

 I applaud the team that made the film. They included rare photos and footage of Elvis that will excite the most die-hard fan. They went into detail about Presley’s early musical influences. They included many good interviews and emphasized the fact that Presley was much more than the jumpsuit image that many people dismiss.

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.

In addition, Presley’s first TV appearances on The Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show – which are some of his most raw and pure performances ever videotaped – are reduced to a whopping 40-second clip. Initially, the film just shows photos of Elvis on the show and silent slow motion video to allow for commentary. I found myself wanting to yell at the screen, “STOP TALKING AND JUST SHOW IT!”

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?

Part Two doesn’t get much better in terms of video clips. It was nice that they showed Presley in the 1970s singing “Never Been to Spain” and “American Trilogy” but during both songs there is an annoying white square that appears on the left side of the screen. It appears that these clips are rough cuts, but the white box really distracts from the performance. Are these really the best clips they could find?
Also, this unique documentary style of not showing the faces of any of the people interviewed made for a slightly frustrating viewing experience. If you don’t recognize the person’s voice, you are straining to see the tiny text in the corner of the screen to see who is talking. While you’re doing that, you’re not listening to everything they are saying.

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.

The decision to use Tom Petty’s version of “Wooden Heart” (from the film G.I. Blues) to run over the end credits was a perplexing one. After everyone in the documentary basically blasted Elvis’ movie music, it is surprising that the filmmakers chose to play one of Presley’s most frivolous songs at the end. It almost sounds like a parody and could possibly discount every nice thing that Petty said throughout the film. And why isn’t Elvis singing over the end credits?

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.

This film should definitely be used to educate young people about Elvis. However, to truly appreciate Elvis Presley, you have to have your A-HA moment – a moment when you are watching and listening to him perform and something clicks. From that moment on, you get it – you understand Presley’s charisma and his musical genius. I’m afraid The Searcher never had that moment.


Click here for the track listing to the Elvis Presley: The Searcher soundtrack

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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



8 thoughts on “Review: Elvis Presley: The Searcher needed a little less conversation and a little more action

  1. I’m glad to hear someone say other Documentaries like Elvis5 6and the Gospel Music of Elvis Presley tell his Story just as well if not better from comments I’ve heard I can appreciate that it wasn’t a smear job but some people you can’t be negative about and Elvis sure is one of them


  2. I really hope someday someone will feature his true passion for music, and more emphasis that THAT was where his power of voice comes from! He gave it ALL every time he sang anything!!! Without THAT, he wouldn’t have been the Elvis Presley we all love to this day!!


    • I never bought this DVD when it appeared as I have no interest in anything P. Beaulieu is behind, and particularly didn’t want to hear her ignorantly pontificating about a man she never understood or really cared about. However, when in Morrisons the other day, I saw the DVD on sale with a wrong price and when I queried it assistant said the price was wrong but would let me have it at the price attached! So I have it by default, so to speak. Having now read these reviews, I must bite the bullet and watch it….. LOL


  3. I always ignore much of what Priscilla says……..and thoroughly enjoyed the words and input of both ‘The Boss’ and Tom Petty! I especially loved the Part 1…I have seen almost every Documentary on Elvis and contrary to most here I enjoyed every minute of it! Also, Poignant to me, since Tom Petty was a ‘fan’ of Elvis’s since meeting him as a child on the movies set of ‘Follow That Dream’….and knowing that he had recently ‘passed on’….I Loved that he sang ‘Wooden Heart’ for Elvis ……over the credits! I think Elvis would have Loved it too! TCB


  4. I agree with Clementine’s comment. I just watched movie Elvis. I did enjoy Austin’s portrayal. But the person who wrote it forgot one big thing. In the movie it showed Priscilla leaving Elvis. Saying it was all the drugs. I’m sure that was upsetting but they forgot to put in the affair she was having either the pool guy or martial arts guy. Movie makes her look like saint and mushy scenes between her and Elvis. Also shows young kid Elvis with black hair. It was well known he had blonde hair. I guess a lot of information was left out.


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