Review: Elvis comes alive in gripping new documentary

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Elvis Presley (Photo: HBO)

I’ve listened to Elvis Presley so much over the years, read so many books about him, seen so much video footage of him, that I came to Elvis Presley: The Searcher — a new, two-part HBO documentary premiering Saturday — thinking I’d skim over it, maybe zero in on anything that seemed unfamiliar. But once again I’d underestimated the power of Presley, the way his music draws you in, the way the story of his life is so much a triumph and a tragedy that it takes on the force of a mythic tale. I ended up watching every second.

It helps that The Searcher isn’t put together in typical music-documentary style, with talking-head experts popping up on camera to explain the clips you’re watching. The Searcher is all Elvis, all the time: constant footage of Presley, with the experts relegated to voice-over narration. The film, directed by Thom Zimny, hits all the beats of Elvis’s life: born poor, invents rock ’n’ roll, stars in lousy movies, comes back in the incredible 1968 TV special, sinks into prescription drugs and depression. The focus remains as positive as possible: The Searcher begins with the ’68 special, the most pure and exciting distillation of Presley’s talent that we have. The voice-over commentary that’s most valuable comes from musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, who deeply understand Presley’s music and motivations, and critics who’ve thought long and hard about Elvis, like Nik Cohn and writer turned producer Jon Landau.

One measure of a good documentary is whether it introduces you to something new in what you think is a familiar subject. I’m sure any viewer will look at this three-hour-plus production and come across something that he or she hadn’t known before. I know that I’m going to listen to two songs I’d either never heard Elvis sing or had forgotten about — “When It Rains, It Really Pours” (rockabilly funk from the ’50s) and the solo version of “Lonely Man” (staggering despair as a lullaby) — again and again. You’ll have your own moments of discovery. Elvis works his way on everyone individually.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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