Elvis Presley never played the bright lights of Tokyo, nor did he ever rock out for thousands underneath the shimmering Tuscan sun. The only true foreign exposure he had was during his two-year army stint in Germany, a bizarre period considering that in times of peace, Americans were still getting drafted, let alone celebrities. But if a documentary is meant to tell us why the way things were behind the things we supposedly knew, no doc does that quite as earnestly or as poignantly as “Elvis Presley: The Searcher.”
With an endless love for its subject and a tone that hints of melancholy and regret, “Elvis Presley: The Searcher’s” thesis statement is “Elvis is the most accomplished rock and roll musician in history, but if it weren’t for certain things, he could have been so much more.” The doc navigates through all of Elvis’ career, with his 1968 TV special as its docking point. It’s never explicitly said that the stirring, 1968 show was the highlight of Elvis’ achievements, but its clear just how palpably different things were after the cameras rolled.
The film’s focus always has Elvis’ polished mane front and center, wasting no frame space for needless, talking head interviews. That isn’t to say skilled rock researchers aren’t commenting on the Elvis’ artistic evolution: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, industry legend Jon Landau, even his former wife Priscilla Presley all speak to the trials and tribulations of the King of Rock and Roll. The interviews are impressive in their objectivity and commendable for their sincerity, an unspoken agreement to accept this artist for his accomplishments as much as his failures.
But it’s that notion of failed artistry that carries the documentary, the fact that we think of Elvis as an entertainer and a pop culture icon, but not in the same creative or musical depth as Bob Dylan or The Beatles. Lack of talent wasn’t the reason for Elvis not landing on that pedestal but poor circumstances. Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, restricted his growth as a musician, notably stopping the singer from performing abroad because Parker himself was in the U.S. illegally, and probably wouldn’t be able to come back home if he joined Elvis on tour. Elvis’ stint in the army was essentially pointless, and nobody with a taste for film would be willing to say an Elvis movie satisfied their palette.
Even the second part of the doc shows a clearly-weathered Elvis, less of a knock-out and more of a punch-line, as he tries to reclaim the glory days of his leg-swiveling youth. He still had the fire and the fury, but the ladder to greatness had become shrouded in smoke. No matter how many hundreds of shows he did or dozens of records he released, they’d never be as good as if he had total control of his career from the get go. Even the documentary sums up his career in quantifiable terms rather than qualitative, focusing on the colossal amount of movies, records and concerts he put out rather than giving an enduring statement testifying to his artistic capacity.
When you land in Rolling Stone’s top 10 list of greatest artists of all time, it’s hard to believe your life was defined by coulda-shoulda-wouldas. But Elvis’ desire to be more was more defining than his actual identity of being more. His insatiable want to be better is endlessly relatable to other musicians and the common man, how we all share a sense of regret of how our lives have turned out, even if we were successes. But “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” doesn’t use cheap documentary parlor tricks to preach that sermon, it proudly lets The King of Rock and Roll do that with ease.