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‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ review: Documentary fit for a King

The first half of "Elvis Presley: The Searcher"

The first half of "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" looks at the singer's early years in Tennessee. Credit: HBO

THE DOCUMENTARY “Elvis Presley: The Searcher”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14, HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Documentarian Thom Zimny examines the rise and fall of Elvis Presley through a more contemporary lens, using new interviews with Priscilla Presley and members of his band, as well as artists he influenced, including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Emmylou Harris. The first half of the two-part documentary covers Presley’s life until he returns home from his stint in the Army, while the second half runs through his comeback and death, as the 50th anniversary of his landmark 1968 TV special draws nearer. In addition to rarely seen photos and footage, Zimny uses new atmospheric shots of Graceland and Memphis, connected with a new score by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, to explain where Presley came from. (The three-CD boxed set that accompanies “The Searcher” shows how well he does this with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or the live version of “That’s All Right.”)

MY SAY The central argument in Zimny’s loving, but unflinching documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” is that his openness and inquisitive nature is what made him the King.

“Elvis was very different,” Petty explained. “Color lines were rarely crossed. You just didn’t find white people that tuned into black music and stayed there and found it interesting and studied it.”

In recent years, the idea that Presley stole from black gospel and blues artists to create his pioneering rock and roll sound has taken root. However, Zimny and many who have studied Presley’s early years argue that the teenager from Tupelo, Mississippi, wasn’t savvy enough to cobble together that strategy. He was simply combining styles that he loved — gospel from both black and white churches, country and bluegrass and the blues.

Springsteen explained, “Elvis and Elvis’ music pointed to black culture and said, ‘This is something that is filled with the force of life. If you want to be a complete and fulfilled person, if you want to be an American, this is something you need to pay attention to.’ ”

The other major question Zimny attempts to answer is about who was responsible for Presley’s drug addiction and poor choices later in his career. Clearly, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, did not help and neither did music industry executives who simply wanted to play it safe and keep raking in cash from Presley and his middle-of-the-road movie musicals.

But the King certainly wielded plenty of power, and his ability to stage a comeback seemed unparalleled. Zimny unearths a telling Presley interview, where fear shines through. “I’d like to do something someday where I feel like I’ve really done a good job, you know, as an actor in a certain type role,” Presley said. “If what you’re doing is doing OK, you’re better off sticking with it until, you know, time itself changes things.”

Zimny argues that the decision to “stick with it” kept Presley in an unfulfilling, yet successful, rut in his later years that led to drug addiction and the diminishing of his legacy. With all that he had accomplished, it was Presley who stopped himself.

BOTTOM LINE The King still rules, but parts of his reign remain increasingly complicated.

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