The Searcher Seeks to Convey the “Realness” of Elvis Presley
BY OLIVIA ARMSTRONG
Priscilla Presley was at SXSW to introduce Elvis Presley: The Searcher a new, two-part documentary that sheds light on Elvis’ upbringing and influences, as well as his fast rise to fame and tragic fall from the limelight. Priscilla, who serves as executive producer of the doc, was joined by director Thom Zimny and legendary producer David Porter on a panel moderated by Sony Music’s John Jackson. Here, the most insightful moments from their conversation.
Think of The Searcher as the “definitive” Elvis biography.
Priscilla Presley, who was married to the singer, songwriter and actor from 1967 to 1973, has seen her share of attempts at documenting his life. Priscilla saw the opportunity to focus on the music when director Thom Zimny, whose past work includes documentaries featuring Bruce Springsteen, came aboard.
“There was a point when we realized the music was getting lost,” said Zimny. “As a filmmaker, it was a challenge to look at Elvis’ story differently and not repeat something that’s already out there.” He and Priscilla worked together to center the story on the musical innovation of Elvis. “It was a long journey,” she admitted. “And we wanted it to be the definitive story of the man behind the music, who was truly an artist.”
Interviewees are represented through voiceover.
In a move seldom seen in documentary filmmaking, Zimny uses only archival footage, photography and voiceover to tell the story of Elvis. Those interviewed for the film are represented by audio, only. “I wanted it to feel like ‘The Elvis Dream,’” Zimny posited. “And cutting to talking heads, I feared, would take you out of that dream.” Zimny, whose roots are in editing, noted it was “freeing” to interview someone without having to see them talk.
Superfans will enjoy never-before-seen footage.
One of buzzed-about elements of the film is how, more than 40 years after Elvis Presley’s death, Zimny managed to track down and utilize never-before-seen photos and footage from the singer’s life. Many are from his teenage years growing up in Memphis, the city that influenced Elvis’ musical preferences and style.
“I had an amazing team of producers who helped me find these lost images,” Zimny said. “I spent a lot of time looking over other documentaries and could tell when something had been used many times, so I tried to avoid that. I also tapped into the collectors' realm and found some gems there.”
Duration was a challenge and authenticity was key.
“You cannot tell Elvis’ story in one or two hours,” said Priscilla. “We originally wanted it to be six,” she laughed. She hopes the two-film, three-hour presentation — starting with the singer’s roots in the South, and ending with the final 1976 Jungle Room recordings at Graceland — will do Elvis justice as an artist. An important point of inclusion was Elvis’ start on Beale Street in Memphis and his interest in the black church.
“Elvis was a rarity because not only was he interested in it, but he was passionate about it,” noted David Porter. “He wanted to get to the core of what shaped the emotional connectivity that came through black artistry.” Porter believes the Elvis’ authenticity is rooted in his early interest in black music: “The soulfulness of the church gave him the soulfulness of his music.”
Graceland “became a character” for Thom Zimny.
The director was granted access to film at the Presleys’ former Memphis home and recording space, now a National Landmark that welcomes 600,000 visitors a year. “Graceland became a character for me,” he said after a clip featuring the home unspooled before the panel audience. “It was such an important space for Elvis and for Priscilla. I started to cross the line and really understand it as a man.”
Elvis Presley: The Searcher premieres April 14 at 8 pm. To go deeper into the film and learn more about the soundtrack, visit the official site.