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'Elvis Presley: The Searcher' — an in-depth look at the HBO series and its soundtrack

The HBO documentary provides an Elvis for the 21st Century with soundtrack sets (with film score by Pearl Jam's Mike McCready) that deliver the same impact.

By Gillian G. Gaar

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On April 3, 1981, This Is Elvis had its world premiere in Memphis, Tennessee. The nearly two-hour film was the first comprehensive documentary that looked at Elvis’ life from beginning to end. Reenactments were used to fill in the gaps where there was no available footage, but overall, it was an exciting, dynamic look at Elvis’ life and career, with plenty of live performances, which were especially thrilling to see back in the days before you could call up any Elvis clip you wanted on YouTube (and when released on video, an additional 40 minutes of footage was added; both versions are available in a 2-DVD package).

NumerousElvis documentaries have been released since, but most focus on a specific period of Presley’s story (e.g., Elvis ’56, Elvis in Hollywood, Elvis: Return to Tupelo). Now, 41 years after Elvis’ death, and 37 years after the release of This Is Elvis, comes Elvis Presley: The Searcher, a comprehensive, three-hour film scheduled to be shown in two parts on HBO, debuting on April 14. There are no plans, as yet, for a DVD release of the film, but there is an accompanying soundtrack, set for release on April 6, available in single CD, double LP and a 3-CD deluxe box.

In contrast to the flash and sparkle of This Is Elvis, Elvis Presley: The Searcher is a thoughtful and earnest examination of Elvis’ life and work. Its sober approach is readily conveyed in the soundtrack’s artwork, which features a close up of an unsmiling, almost forlorn looking Elvis Presley. 

The Searcher aims to portray Elvis as a serious artist, as opposed to a phenomenon, which the world media seems to prefer,” explains Ernst Jorgensen, a co-producer of both the film and soundtrack (Thom Zimny and Jon Landau are the soundtrack’s other co-producers). “As time goes by, the story gets shorter, and, in the process, not possible to understand. Elvis in the ‘50s is cool, in the ‘60s Elvis made a lot of lame movies, and then in the ‘70s he took drugs, got fat and died. That’s an injustice! He did make those movies — but he actually made 11 albums worth of generally great music, including an endless string of hits, during the ‘60s. And I definitely insist that as a stage performer he was never better than in the early ‘70s.” In short, it’s a re-evaluation of Elvis’ career that’s not unlike the work Jorgensen did in rehabilitating Presley’s image through the release of box sets like The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete 50s Masters.

Work on the film began when Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ former wife, who has overseen some of his business affairs after his death, approached HBO about doing a documentary (Priscilla is one of The Searcher’s executive producers). HBO then tapped Thom Zimny, director of a number of documentaries on Bruce Springstreen, to direct. Zimny credits Priscilla, Jerry Schilling (one of Elvis’ friends, and an executive producer of The Searcher), and Jon Landau (Bruce Springsteen’s manager, and also a producer of The Searcher) with serving as “helpful guides to understanding how the story of Elvis was lost through the years, how a generation missed out on this beautiful music, and more importantly, the artist. Many other films and books focused on other details and made the music secondary, which is what we really wanted to focus on.”

Zimny also reached out to Jorgensen for assistance. Jorgensen, who’s overseen and produced Elvis reissues since the Essential Elvis series back in the ‘80s, and is the author of the sessionography Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, was a natural choice, given his extensive knowledge of the Presley catalog.

“It started with a 90 minute transatlantic phone call from Thom,” Jorgensen recalls. “Would I help him? Jon Landau had promised Thom that this was a serious project and it was to be about Elvis as a recording artist and performer. This happened about two years before production started, and during those 24 months I bombarded Thom with hundreds of hours of music, dozens of stories, facts and interview suggestions. When production started, my role changed to that of fact checker, and suggesting deletions and additions. I’m sure he must have been sick of me at times. But he hadn’t hired me to agree with him, but to be his sparring partner.

“I think through our dialogue I persuaded Thom that at every stage of Elvis’ career — maybe except 1965 — Elvis created something spectacular,” he continues, “and that most of the ‘60s were forgotten, including about 120 generally brilliant Nashville recordings, with Elvis at his most beautiful voice ever, a unique band of session musicians and mostly great songwriting. Definitely about 20 major hits (during the ‘60s), two unique gospel albums and a repertoire covering country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop and even a Bob Dylan song. In the movie, Landau and others make great comments in relation to this.”

Thus, the film’s focus is kept on Presley’s artistic accomplishments, a prioritizing that’s laid out at the beginning. “We shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off a great artist because of all the clatter that came later,” Tom Petty says during The Searcher’s opening sequence. “We should dwell on what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music.”

Petty is among the more well-known interviewees featured in the film, along with Springsteen, Emmylou Harris and Robbie Robertson. There’s also interview material from people who knew and worked with Elvis, including not just the usual suspects (Presley’s first producer, Sam Phillips, and his 1950s musicians, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana), but also folks who aren’t as high profile (Cissy Houston, Ronnie Tutt and Norbert Putnam, all of whom worked with Presley during his the final decade of his life). There are also comments drawn comments from Elvis’ own interviews. Other commentators are drafted in to set the narrative direction, including Jorgensen, Landau, Alan Light (The Searcher’s screenwriter), and Warren Zanes (who wrote the liner notes for the The Searcher’s soundtrack), among others. There’s rather too much reliance on the latter interviewees; one wishes for more first hand accounts (and more from Elvis), instead of the constant explanations given by the experts.

There’s much unseen footage in the film. “Finding still images and footage of Elvis that had not been used was the exciting part of the storytelling,” said Zimny in an HBO Q&A. “We had complete access to the Graceland archives and contacts in the collector world, which gave us the opportunity to use rare and unseen materials to tell the story. We utilized images from sessions, behind the scenes footage, and outtakes, not to mention the 6,000 recordings that Ernst Jorgensen gave us.”

Presley’s 1968 television special Elvis (aka “The Comeback Special”) is used as a touchstone for The Searcher; both parts one and two open with clips from the show, and the film’s end features the special’s closing number, “If I Can Dream.” The special certainly was a landmark event for Elvis, at a time when he’d reached a turning point. After exploding like a shooting star in 1956, Elvis’ runaway success came to a sudden end a mere two years later when he was drafted; as he later observed, “Overnight, it was all gone.” And despite a promising start following his discharge from the service in 1960, by 1968, his records were no longer guaranteed a spot in the Top 10. His movies weren’t making money. He was, effectively, washed up.

The special rejuvenated Presley’s career. It will likely be celebrated in some fashion in 2018, which marks the special’s 50th anniversary. But in The Searcher, the footage has a different function. As it opens part one, you’re told how this was the show that brought Elvis’ career back from the brink. So the question becomes: how, and why, had he fallen so far?

 The cover for Goldmine's Elvis: The Searcher issue. This feature originally ran in Goldmine's May print edition.

The cover for Goldmine's Elvis: The Searcher issue. This feature originally ran in Goldmine's May print edition.

Part one of The Searcher then goes back to beginning, covering Presley’s life from his birth to the end of his army days. Until 1956, there’s not much in the way Elvis footage available, so the filmmakers instead rely on stock footage; church services, public dancesand the like. There are again reenactments, though now done in a more lyrical fashion; shots of a lone figure on a bicycle traveling down a country road, or a woman and her young son looking into the window of a shop selling guitars, obviously meant as stand-ins for the young Elvis and his mother.

Over 30 people were interviewed for the film, but their comments are only heard in voice-over; this isn’t a film with a series of static “talking heads” (though it does mean, if a caption isn’t provided, you’re not always certain who’s talking). The intention is to make The Searcher as rich a visual experience as an audio experience, something that resonates emotionally as it draws you up into the story.

The song choices, while touching on obvious high points (“Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “It’s Now or Never”), also stress the breadth of Elvis’ repertoire. Even casual rock fans will likely be somewhat familiar with Elvis’ version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” But how many would know one of Presley’s other Crudup covers, the snappy “My Baby Left Me”? “Crawfish” wasn’t the hit song from the gritty King Creole (Elvis’ own favorite film), but it’s a gem of a number that has him trading vocals with Kitty White (who plays a street vendor in the movie). And his breathtaking performance of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” has sat undiscovered for years, buried on the soundtrack of Spinout.

“Yes we wanted a mixture,” says Jorgensen. “Hits for recognition of the great music he made, and less known recordings to suggest how much wonderful music he also made — if you just care to listen.” For Zimny, “The goal was always to put the music first.”

But part one stints too much on live footage. It’s surprising, because it was Elvis’ kinetic television performances that made him such a national phenomenon, not to mention a figure of controversy. Yet in The Searcher, these appearances are largely distilled to photo montages; there are no clips from The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance.

“There have already been several great clip shows on Elvis, which you can buy on DVD,” Jorgensen responds. “With this show, telling the stories seemed more important. It’s of course also a question of where you want to spend your resources, and mere repetition of other people’s great work (in other documentaries) seemed meaningless.”

Certainly, sets like Elvis: The Great Performances and Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows capture those ‘50s appearances, not to mention This Is Elvis (and Andrew Solt, the co-writer/director/producer of that film, is also one of The Searcher’s executive producers). But in a film that aspires to be the definitive take on Presley’s career (which is clearly how The Searcher is positioning itself), it’s somewhat frustrating to hear about the “incredible performer” Presley was during his breakout period, without being able to see more of that work.

There’s also a tendency for the interviewees to talk too much over the performance clips that are used. The clip of Presley’s duet with Frank Sinatra on Sinatra’s 1960 TV special (Sinatra sings Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” while Presley camps his way through Sinatra’s “Witchcraft”) is interrupted by John Jackson (a Sony Music producer) pointing out, “You can hear the women in the crowd start screaming — Elvis sexes it up a little bit.” It’s the kind of explanatory hand-holding, telling the audience how to react, that robs the viewer of the opportunity to develop their own opinion about what they’re watching. You’re not allowed to simply sit back and take in a performance without any distractions.

In part two, after a promising post-army start with the album Elvis Is Back! and hit singles like “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” the story descends into the morass of the movie years. The pain of this period is mitigated by drawing on clips from two of the better movie moments: “Bossa Nova Baby” from Fun in Acapulco and the end of “C’mon Everybody” from Viva Las Vegas. Priscilla states that Elvis found most of his film work uninspiring, followed by an interview clip from Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, in which he insists that Presley had the power to say yes or no to film projects. But then Jerry Schilling is quoted saying otherwise.

Parker’s motivations for keeping Elvis making movies are clear; it was all about the profit. As Red West, another of Elvis’ buddies, comments, Parker was concerned with the bottom line and didn’t care if any of Elvis’ work “was worth a crap.” It’s left to Tom Petty, an outsider, to pose the obvious question: “This is what we’ll never understand — why did Colonel Parker have this kind of influence over (Elvis)? Why was he willing to knowingly humiliate himself for this man?” As The Searcher shows, Elvis did care about his work. So why didn’t he fight harder for his artistic vision?

It’s a mystery the film leaves unresolved. Though the Elvis special revealed the compelling, charismatic performer that lurked behind the plastic façade of his movie persona, it’s never addressed why Elvis didn’t team up again with the show’s director, Steve Binder. Priscilla describes Elvis’ work with Memphis producer Chips Moman in early 1969, that produced the hits “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds,” as “the greatest sessions; he came alive again.” But Jerry Schilling’s observation that Elvis nonetheless didn’t return to work with Moman again is offered without any further explanation.

It’s at times like this you wish The Searcher would’ve dug a little deeper into its subject’s complexities. There are subtle clues to possible answers; Priscilla’s observation that Elvis never asked anyone for advice, and Steve Binder recalling how Elvis would “cower” before his manager. Such comments suggest a powerlessness; a man with no one to turn to, who was too afraid to confront the one individual who had control over his destiny. This would’ve been an interesting area to explore; surely Elvis spoke to some of his friends or associates about his dissatisfactions and his inability to overcome them. But it’s an area left unexamined.

Elvis’ return to live performance buoyed him for a time. There’s some curious sleight-of-hand in this part of the film however, with interviews about his 1969 Las Vegas appearances accompanying footage of what’s actually his 1970 summer season in Vegas (similar tactics are used throughout the film; a photo montage said to be of Elvis and his family at Graceland actually features photos taken at the Presley’s previous home on Audubon Drive). And then, like the film years, came another rut, as Presley sank into the grind of constant touring. “All the things he told me that he wanted to do, travel the world, meet new audiences, none of that happened,” Steve Binder sadly observes. “All the light went out of his eyes.” Again; why didn’t Elvis take command of his own life?

Even before The Searcher aired, Elvis fans were speculating online that the film would end after Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii concert, due to Priscilla’s and Elvis Presley Enterprises’ perceived “whitewashing” of Elvis’ later years. But in fact, The Searcher’s final 20 minutes do cover the post Aloha-period, including the recording of his last hit single, “Burning Love” (ironically, a song Elvis never liked) and his final sessions at Graceland in 1976.

Elvis’ drug use is mentioned, and his behavior described as “self-destructive,” but it’s clearly not something the filmmakers wish to dwell on. As Landau explains in the soundtrack’s liner notes, they wanted to avoid “the sensational, the salacious.” Yet playing down such an area also makes the story feel one-sided. As Robert Gordon says in his new book, Memphis Rent Party, “If the conflicts were erased, if the controversies were diminished, the achievement could not be properly understood.” Instead, The Searcher comes to an abrupt close, wrapped up with the short on-screen statement, “On August 16, 1977, during a brief break from the tour, Elvis died at Graceland.” Anyone not familiar with Elvis’ story will be left wondering why.

 Elvis: The Searcher 2-LP set, (See below for track listing). Photo courtesy of Sony.

Elvis: The Searcher 2-LP set, (See below for track listing). Photo courtesy of Sony.

The soundtrack, says Jorgensen, is “not meant to be collectors’ release. Actually, both the film and the CD release have an element of ‘Introducing Elvis Presley.’” With one exception (a home recording of Elvis’ mother Gladys singing “Home Sweet Home”), the deluxe box has no previously unreleased material. It is, as Zanes writes in the liner notes, “not a Greatest Hits package but a song-by-song, curated portrait of an artist.” Freed from focusing on the hits, the set digs deeply into Elvis’ catalog, opting to use a rehearsal version of “Separate Ways” and take 5 of “Hurt” (one of Elvis’ last great performances) instead of the final studio versions. There are also such delights as the lovely solo version of “Lonely Man,” not released during Presley’s lifetime, as well as home recordings; for Jorgensen, a version of “Mona Lisa” recorded while Elvis was stationed in Germany, “moves me tremendously, and demonstrates the ultimate beauty of his voice.”

The deluxe set’s third CD features original music written for the film’s score by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, as well as songs by artists that influenced Elvis; a range of performers including The Blackwood Brothers, Howlin’ Wolf, Eddie Snow, Johnnie Ray and Odetta. “Elvis knew so much music, of all genres,” says Jorgensen, who describes the third CD as an opportunity to “give listeners an idea of the range of Elvis’ inspiration and taste.”

Elvis Presley: The Searcher presents a new Elvis for a new age. In Zimny’s words, “I hope that future generations take away that Elvis had so much more to give than what they’ve usually been able to access. I hope as a filmmaker that this documentary conveys the message of his love of music, but also his humor and his love for his family. On a personal level, the film was a wonderful emotional journey where every day I felt I was discovering something new. Each interview brought out new stories and details about this amazing artist. What surprised me the most was how little he has been understood.”

Elvis Presley: The Searcher
The Original Soundtrack

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The musical companion to the upcoming two-part documentary available in multiple configurations including a 3-CD deluxe box set. Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, and RCA Records will release Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) on Friday, April 6.

The musical companion to the two-part documentary directed by Emmy® and Grammy® award winner Thom Zimny, Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) will be available physical configurations including an 18-track definitive soundtrack, a 2-LP gatefold 12” vinyl edition and a 3-CD collectible deluxe box set.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) includes the 18 essential Elvis Presley hits, powerful performances, and rare alternative versions of songs at the musical core of the groundbreaking three-hour, two-part film which focuses on the development of Elvis’ spellbinding artistry, from his early blues and country roots and influences through his seismic contributions to popular culture to his 1976 recording sessions at the Jungle Room in Graceland. The two-part documentary film, which will premiere in the United States on HBO on April 14, 2018, uses rare footage lensed throughout Elvis’ life and career as a means of exploring Elvis’ singular musical vision in all its complexity.

The 3-CD deluxe box set features 37 additional Elvis cuts plus a special disc featuring selections from Mike McCready’s (Pearl Jam) original score for Elvis Presley: The Searcher; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing “Wooden Heart”; and the music that inspired Elvis (including R&B and country classics and “Home Sweet Home” sung by his mother, Gladys Presley). The Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) deluxe 3-CD set includes a 40-page hardcover book featuring rare photography, liner notes by Warren Zanes, and a director’s note by Thom Zimny.

In his package notes for Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack), director Thom Zimny writes, “the soundtrack was in my mind from the beginning. I wasn’t just making a film, I was thinking about the collection of recordings I would gather for a person who saw the film, who wanted to complete the experience, just as I always had. Thankfully, our friends at Sony gave me and The Searcher team the chance to create this collection. It’s been in my mind for years now. To me, this collection is part of the film.”

“So, in this collection, one gets not a Greatest Hits package but a song-by-song, curated portrait of an artist,” writes Warren Zanes in the book featured in Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack [Deluxe Box Set]), “ artist who very consistently and courageously gave himself to his performances, as if in the giving he might find some missing part of himself. The truth in his voice, in the end, was the sound of a searcher. Along the way, he built a catalog as deep as any found in the broad and beautiful vistas of American music.”

— Sony Legacy

 Elvis: The Searcher 3-CD set. Photo courtesy of Sony Legacy.

Elvis: The Searcher 3-CD set. Photo courtesy of Sony Legacy.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack)
3-CD Deluxe Box Set

Disc 1

1. Trouble / Guitar Man

2. My Baby Left Me

3. Baby, What You Want Me To Do

4. Old Shep

5. That’s When Your Heartaches Begin

6. That’s All Right

7. Blue Moon Of Kentucky

8. Fool, Fool, Fool

9. Tweedlee Dee

10. Baby Let’s Play House

11. Good Rockin’ Tonight

12. Trying To Get To You

13. Blue Moon

14. When It Rains It Pours

15. Blue Christmas

16. Heartbreak Hotel

17. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy

18. Money Honey

19. Hound Dog

20. (There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)

21. Crawfish

22. Trouble

23. Farther Along

24. Mona Lisa

25. Hide Thou Me

26. Loving You (end title take 16)

27. Lonely Man (solo version)

28. Power Of My Love

Disc 2

1. Milky White Way

2. A Mess Of Blues

3. Fame And Fortune

4. Love Me Tender / Witchcraft
(duet with Frank Sinatra)

5. Like A Baby

6. Are You Lonesome Tonight?

7. It’s Now Or Never

8. Wooden Heart

9. Swing Down Sweet Chariot

10. Reconsider Baby

11. Bossa Nova Baby

12. C’mon Everybody

13. Tomorrow Is A Long Time

14. Take My Hand, Precious Lord

15. Run On

16. Baby What You Want Me To Do

17. Suspicious Minds (take 6)

18. Baby Let’s Play House (rehearsal)

19. Words (rehearsal)

20. That’s All Right

21. Never Been To Spain

22. An American Trilogy

23. You Gave Me A Mountain

24. Burning Love (rehearsal version)

25. Separate Ways (rehearsal version)

26. Hurt (take 5)

27. If I Can Dream

Disc 3

1. Dissolution 2 - Mike McCready

2. Satisfied - The Blackwood Brothers

3. That’s All Right -
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup

4. She May Be Yours But She Comes To See Me Sometimes - Joe Hill Louis

5. Mystery Train - Little Junior’s Blue Flames

6. Smokestack Lightning - Howlin’ Wolf

7. Rock-A-My Soul - The Blackwood Brothers

8. Just Walkin’ In The Rain - The Prisonaires

9. Rocket 88 - Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats

10. Write Me A Letter - The Ravens

11. Blue Moon Of Kentucky - Bill Monroe

12. Ain’t That Right - Eddie Snow

13. Just Walkin’ In The Rain -
Johnnie Ray

14. Lawdy Miss Clawdy – Lloyd Price

15. Home Sweet Home - Gladys Presley

16. Blowin’ In The Wind - Odetta

17. Tomorrow Is A Long Time - Odetta

18. The Weight - The Staple Singers

19. Heartbreak Hotel - The Orlons

20. Wooden Heart - Tom Petty and
the Heartbreakers

21. Rebound - Mike McCready

 Elvis: The Searcher 2-LP set, (See below for track listing). Photo courtesy of Sony.

Elvis: The Searcher 2-LP set, (See below for track listing). Photo courtesy of Sony.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack)
2-LP set

Side A

1. Trouble / Guitar Man

2. My Baby Left Me

3. That’s All Right

4. Baby Let’s Play House

5. Heartbreak Hotel

Side B

1. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy

2. Hound Dog

3. Crawfish

4. Mona Lisa

5. Milky White Way

Side C

1. Like A Baby

2. Are You Lonesome Tonight?

3. It’s Now Or Never

4. Tomorrow Is A Long Time

Side D

1. Suspicious Minds (take 6)

2. Separate Ways
(rehearsal version)

3. Hurt (take 5)

4. If I Can Dream