The phenomenon of Elvis Presley as pop culture icon, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, has been so pervasive that other aspects of his remarkable life story largely fell by the wayside.
Perhaps the most significant area overshadowed by the mythology that quickly enveloped the man who emerged from a dirt-poor childhood in Tupelo, Miss., to become one of the biggest celebrities the world has ever known, is the creative instinct that drove him as a musician.
So as unlikely as it sounds, more than 40 years since he died at age 42 at his Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tenn., the makers of “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” a two-part, 3 ½-hour documentary premiering Saturday on HBO, have found a fresh angle from which to delve once more into his life.
It’s the brainchild of Presley’s ex-wife and executor of his estate, Priscilla Presley, and his lifelong friend Jerry Schilling, who share credit as executive producers.
The film is directed by Thom Zimny, best known for his long association with Bruce Springsteen, for whom he has created numerous music videos and documentaries about the making of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” albums, as well as select concert films.
The idea was to zero in on Presley’s artistry, something that has frequently taken a back seat to his various personas as rock’s first major rebel, then fitful movie star, revolutionary Las Vegas entertainer and, finally, victim of tragic excess.
His sexually suggestive stage moves, distinctive swept-up, jet-black hairdo, defiant sideburns, exotic fashion sense, even his late-in-life bid to be a drug enforcement agent for President Richard Nixon have generated more attention over the decades than the impulses that motivated him as a singer.
“Elvis was very different,” rocker Tom Petty says in the film, one of multiple subjects Zimny interviewed.
Others include Springsteen, guitarist Scotty Moore, R&B singer Rufus Thomas, songwriter-producer David Porter, musician and record executive Tony Brown (who toured with Presley in the ’70s) and Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau, who also is an executive producer of this project. Zimny also incorporates archival interviews with departed figures including Ike Turner and Presley himself.
“Color lines were rarely crossed,” said Petty, discussing Presley’s penchant as a youth for sneaking into black churches and clubs to hear gospel, jump blues, soul and R&B music. Petty has often cited his childhood meeting with Presley in his native Florida at age 10, while Presley was there making a movie, for putting him on the path to a life in rock ’n’ roll. “You just didn’t find white people that tuned into black music and stayed there and found it interesting and studied it.”
That colorblind approach is at the heart of Presley’s music, which helped launch the rise of rock music in the mid-1950s when he started working with producer Sam Phillips at the Sun Records label in Memphis.
Instinctively and seamlessly fusing elements of black gospel, blues and R&B with white country and folk music, Presley synthesized a vibrant new sound that electrified his young audiences, first locally, then nationally and eventually globally.
“Sam Phillips for a long time had the idea of finding a white singer that could bring black musicians into the white mainstream — for a lot of noble reasons, not just commercial,” Petty says. He’s echoing a central theme of author Peter Guralnick’s superb 2015 biography “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n Roll,” which outlines Phillips’ desire to provide disenfranchised African Americans with a platform for creative expression.
But the collaboration between Presley and Phillips was a two-way street. “Everybody thinks that Sam was looking for a white boy to do black music,” says Schilling, who met Presley when both were teenagers living in housing projects in Memphis. “But Elvis was looking for Sam Phillips,” an acknowledgment of Presley’s awareness of the black artists Phillips had been making records with before he ever set foot inside the Sun studio: Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and others.
“Elvis Presley: The Searcher” hones in time and again to underscore the ways Elvis sought to express his innate understanding of and appreciation for the meeting of cultures that was brewing at the time, particularly in the South.
Presley’s label, Legacy Recordings, also has assembled a companion three-disc soundtrack album: two discs of his recordings used in the film and one with songs he recorded as performed by the original artists.
“I think it’s a real treat for fans getting to see the man behind the scenes, getting to see Elvis as a producer,” Priscilla Presley told The Times of audio and film footage of Presley at work in recording studios, often directing other singers and instrumentalists as to the sounds and feel he was after.
“He’s so vulnerable, it just humanizes him,” said Presley, who also will take part in a Grammy Museum panel about the project on April 29 with Zimny and Schilling. “Most people known him for his songs and his movies, and some people know a little about his life. But I think that by giving people a little more feel of what was going on, you feel like loving him even more.”
The film also tries to resolve the central conundrums of his career: why he recorded so much undistinguished material and whether Presley reached unprecedented heights of fame and fortune because of, or in spite of, the career advice he received from his manager, Col. Tom Parker, who often has been chastised by Presley aficionados for his carnival huckster-like approach to exploiting all aspects of Presley’s career.
But it does get at his mixed emotions over the formulaic Hollywood films Parker contracted him to appear in for more than a decade — movies that simultaneously expanded his fame around the world while dampening his musical vitality.
And it takes viewers behind the scenes while he made his remarkable 1968 “comeback special” for NBC, which proved him to be musically relevant again, en route to his game-changing stints in Las Vegas and further recording sessions in the ’70s until his death.
Asked whether there were any revelations for her in the process of making the documentary over a period of several years, Priscilla Presley said, “Not to give them all away, but there are a couple in the beginning. We all know that Elvis was so influenced by the music from gospel to blues, and Thom captures that so well in the segments about Elvis’ time on [Memphis’] Beale Street and what was going on during that time.
“The influences he had during that time, when he walked the streets during that time and got the influences of jazz and blues — when I saw that stuff in the beginning, even the way he dressed that was captured with archival film during that time.
“Even though I knew it before, the impact of watching that time period, it makes so much sense when Elvis talked about it, why he used to listen to [that music], the clothing people wore. It was not particularly one thing, or one style, but the independence to be able to look different, to sound different, to be different.
“His style was his own,” she said, echoing one of her ex’s most famous remarks about himself: “He didn’t copy anybody.”
‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’
Where: HBO and HBO GO
When: 8 and 9:49 p.m. Saturday (available at 5 p.m. on HBO GO)
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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