Photo: HBO

Elvis Presley probably spent more time in front of a movie camera than any other rock star of his era. He made young rebel melodramas, breezy musical comedies, and concert films—and that’s not even counting his hours and hours of appearances on TV variety shows. Yet there’s never been an Elvis picture quite like HBO’s two-part, three-and-a-half hour Elvis Presley: The Searcher, debuting Saturday night at 8 p.m. Eastern. Ostensibly a documentary spin on author Peter Guralnick’s comprehensive, analytical biographies Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love, director Thom Zimny’s film isn’t about Elvis the icon so much as it’s about Presley the person.

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Part one charts The King’s ascension, from the Mississippi Delta club scene to Sun Records, TV stardom, and Hollywood. Part two covers how the rock ’n’ roll revolution he’d helped foment rumbled on more or less without him. The story proceeds chronologically, but returns periodically to footage from Presley’s 1968 “comeback” TV special, which is meant to represent of the “pure” Elvis that critics and some fans kept pining for.

The Searcher’s rough interpretation of Elvis’s career arc is hardly original. There’s long been a Stations Of The Cross element to the Presley story. It begins with his stillborn twin brother, the goes on, step by step, to cover: how he grew up in Tupelo, singing gospel with his mother; how he learned “black music” on Beale Street in Memphis, then fused it with his hillbilly roots; how he scandalized the squares with his pelvis-shaking sex appeal; how his phenomenal rise to fame was abruptly stalled by a stint in the Army; how he got sidetracked by silly teenybopper movies in the ’60s, and missed out on rock’s post-Beatles boom; how he spent his 30s chasing the easy money of Las Vegas engagements, and then retreating to the loneliness and self-indulgence of his Graceland mansion; and how he died puffy and pilled-up at age 42, leaving behind a vast and checkered discography.

The big difference in Zimny’s version of this saga is that he has access to materials that few filmmakers or journalists have ever picked through. Thanks to Priscilla Presley and family friend/archivist Jerry Schilling throwing open their vaults, The Searcher is filled with photos, home movies, and audio recordings that haven’t seen the light of day before.

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To make the most of what sets The Searcher apart, Zimny eschews talking-head interviews. He’s gathered an impressive chorus of experts, ranging from Presley collaborators to famous fans like Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, and Tom Petty. But none appear on camera. Instead they function as both narrators and commentators, simultaneously spinning the old Elvis myths and—to some extent—debunking them.

Don’t misunderstand: The Searcher isn’t some gossipy, warts-and-all exposé. It’s more of a down-to-earth appreciation of Elvis Presley’s unique gifts, and a clear-eyed explication of why and how he so often squandered them. The documentary isn’t a simplistic “rise and fall” cautionary tale, either. Since Presley’s 1977 death—and especially over the course of the past decade’s worth of repackaging and reissues—critics have reevaluated a lot of the post-Army records and stage shows, and have found that much of it was underrated at the time. Zimny’s film is far more interested in admiring the best than gawking at the worst.

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Springsteen and Petty offer some of the keenest insights. The former talks at length about how Presley took comfort in gospel music throughout his career, and suggests that he was really only “himself” when he was performing, not when he was relaxing at home. The latter breaks down how the star interacted with his frequently overqualified sidemen. Priscilla Presley has a lot to say too, about how the man she married—and divorced—lived in a kind of bubble, with really only about a dozen close friends and attendants, all of whom kept him pacified when perhaps his art would’ve been better-served by a little bit of agitation.

The most important voice in The Searcher—not heard quite enough, frankly—is Elvis himself. He gave a lot of interviews in his life, but his “aw shucks” good ol’ boy persona kept him from saying much of substance. Nevertheless, every now and then Zimny finds a clip that clarifies where Presley’s head was at, as he was becoming one of the most famous singers in the world.

Conventional wisdom holds that manager Colonel Tom Parker tightly controlled his client’s career, always aiming for big money over great music. The Searcher proposes that Presley was a more-than-willing participant in the Colonel’s schemes—and that he himself valued glitzy showbiz success first and foremost, so long as he was allowed to sing gospel songs on a semi-regular basis.

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The most fascinating passages of this film consider how quickly Presley was absorbed into the mainstream, going from being the target of hand-wringing moralists and mean-spirited Steve Allen jokes to becoming a tame Hollywood movie star and Frank Sinatra peer in less than five years. Zimny’s research team has found one perfect image to encapsulate the way the world seemed to pass Elvis by: It’s a shot of a civil rights march filling an entire city street, right by a movie theater playing the long-forgotten 1968 Presley Western comedy Stay Away, Joe. A decade after the man scandalized bigots with his race-mixing and genre-bending, he was off playing a fake cowboy when some of the biggest moments in American race-relations were happening.

The question The Searcher asks is whether fans expected too much of Presley. As the documentary points out, there was no precedent for how an “aging rock star” behaved, pre-Elvis—because there’d never been a rock star like him before. What’s most remarkable about this film is that for all the footage and photos Zimny has assembled, he’s still no closer to penetrating Presley’s psyche than anyone else who’s ever listened to that rich, angelic voice, or gazed at that soft, boyish face.

The first line of the movie is “Elvis was a searcher”—which perhaps he was. But the doc’s title refers more to everyone who wasn’t Elvis, but who spent a lifetime trying to make sense of what this life and career really meant.

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