Unsuspicious Minds

HBO’s new two-part Elvis documentary offers a treasure trove of footage but whitewashes some aspects of his story.

Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley. HBO

Elvis Presley is likely the single most complicated figure in all of American popular culture. His 1950s emergence is a hinge down the middle of the 20th century, and a precarious one, the young white man who invents rock ’n’ roll stardom without having invented rock ’n’ roll. “Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons,” wrote Greil Marcus in Mystery Train, Marcus’ landmark 1975 book whose title was drawn from what might be Presley’s greatest recording. Presley died just two years later and ascended into a whole new level of mythology, his absence allowing him to become a mute and endlessly pliable symbol for the needs of an entire culture.

In the years since his arrival into the American imagination, Presley has been many things to many people. To his most passionate fans, he’ll always be Zeus among the American musical gods, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, a figure of reverence so intense it borders on religion. (I was once at Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’ mother’s death and saw a number of visitors openly weeping; Gladys Presley passed away in 1958.) To his detractors, he’s been a moral menace, a sellout, a has-been, and most powerfully and enduringly, a culture thief, a singular metonym for the expropriation of black American art for the benefits of white American commerce. “Elvis was a hero to most/ but he never meant shit to me, you see/ Straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain,” rapped Chuck D on Public Enemy’s 1989 classic “Fight the Power,” perhaps the most memorable such denunciation of the singer. The fact that Presley was never really any of these things is almost beside the point; the defining condition of Elvis Presley is that he’s so much larger than his actual life.

HBO’s two-part documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher, which airs this weekend and runs well over 200 minutes in length, is the latest attempt to take stock of that life, and it’s an admirable one. The film is directed by Thom Zimny (who previously helmed a number of well-received documentaries about Bruce Springsteen for the network), written by journalist and historian Alan Light, and features a vast array of commentators, from songwriters Mike Stoller and David Porter to academics Portia Maultsby and Bill Malone to rock legends like Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, and the late Tom Petty. Rather than having these speakers actually appear on screen, the film presents all testimonials as voice-overs, a counterintuitive but clever choice that allows the film’s magnificent archival footage to take pride of place while also allowing the filmmakers to mix the voices of living and dead alongside each other almost seamlessly. (Along with the recently departed Petty, the film features substantial audio clips of Rufus Thomas, Sam Phillips, and even Elvis himself.)

The Searcher is at its best when it tackles the subject of Presley’s music on the music’s own terms, an impressive feat given the extent to which Elvis’ iconography has come to overwhelm the particulars of his recording career. (I teach Elvis’ music in one of my college classes, and each semester multiple students confess that they’ve never actually heard him before.) The film does a terrific job evoking the musical world in which Elvis was steeped during his upbringing, from the gospel and country broadcasts that entranced him during his young childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, to the rhythm and blues that seized hold of his imagination after moving to Memphis with his family at the age of 13. The Searcher luxuriates in the early days of the singer’s life and career: Presley doesn’t sign with RCA, the label that would make him a national superstar, until almost one hour into the film.

One of the most unusual things about Presley’s most unusual career is the widespread belief the very greatest music he ever recorded is also the earliest music he ever recorded. The sides Presley cut at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in 1954 and 1955, starting with the thunderclap of “That’s All Right (Mama)” and culminating in the extraordinary double-sided single of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” and “Mystery Train”—all of which were recorded before Elvis turned 21—stand among the most legendary recorded runs in all of American music. And rightly so: There’s the unadorned intimacy of the arrangements, the eerie immediacy of Sun’s cavernous echo, and of course that voice, all talent and ambition and voracious musical obsession. It’s no wonder that so many listeners have heard in them the sound of some sort of prelapsarian musical Eden, removed from commerce, controversy, the Colonel. The Presley mythology begins here and perpetually longs for a return: Even his RCA smashes like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” great as they are, lack the ineffable magic of those Sun recordings.

The Searcher’s first part is considerably more exciting than its second part, which runs from 1960 through his death, although to be fair the same is inarguably true of Presley’s career itself. The film’s bipartite structure follows roughly the same map as Peter Guralnick’s extraordinary two-volume biography of Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love (Guralnick’s first volume ends with Elvis entering the army, while part one of The Searcher ends with his discharge), and will likely invite comparisons, which is somewhat unfair given the differences in form. But Careless Love’s great triumph was its unflinching portrayal of the ravages of American fame, and the ways that so much of Presley’s post-1950s life was defined by various prisons of his own success. It’s a riveting and deeply tragic story of a man who, for the majority of his life, simply wasn’t allowed to be a real human being, not by his fans, not by his handlers, not even by himself.

The Searcher is never able to totally reckon with this. Priscilla Presley and longtime Elvis friend and confidant Jerry Schilling are executive producers on the documentary, and one gets the sense that the filmmakers weren’t encouraged to dig past any depth that might risk interfering with the Elvis Industrial Complex’s bottom line. Almost all of Presley’s many artistic missteps and personal difficulties are laid at the feet of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s famously controlling manager whose villainy in Elvis lore has become a cliché in itself. The Searcher doesn’t shy away from Elvis’ struggles with substance addiction, but even these are presented as a sort of messianic byproduct of Elvis’ total commitment to his work, and the film rather studiously avoids acknowledging just how bad most of Presley’s later music was.

Most frustratingly, the film’s approach to the enormously complicated subject of Elvis and race never moves past the Pollyanna-ish. This is the most controversial aspect of Elvis’ legacy, that a young white man who was so deeply indebted to the black musical styles that he loved ended up making far more money performing those styles than any black musician ever did. Any serious consideration of Presley must grapple with this, and it can certainly do so without demonizing him—after all, this is a story about the racism and inequity of the American entertainment industry, one that predated Elvis by more than a century and surely didn’t end with him either. It really isn’t fair that Elvis has become a shorthand avatar for white-on-black cultural plunder, and, pace Chuck D, there’s not really any historical evidence that Elvis was some unreconstructed racist. He was unfailingly conscientious about crediting his black musical influences and inspirations, and he was far more popular among black audiences, particularly early in his career, than is often acknowledged.

Instead, we’re treated to vague platitudes about race transcendence draped in white boomer triumphalism. “Elvis and Elvis’ music pointed to black culture and said, ‘This is something that’s 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,’ ” gushes Springsteen at one point, a great sound bite that’s wishful to the point of delusion. Just last year, Elvis Presley’s Graceland was sued by Memphis-area Black Lives Matter activists who’d been denied entry to a vigil for the singer, allegedly on the basis of the color of their skin. The intense backlash to the protests among the Elvis faithful suggests it’s never been all that difficult for white people to love Presley’s music without particularly valuing black life. Shortly thereafter, Memphis hip-hop artist Marco Pavé released an acclaimed album entitled Welcome to Grc Lnd that was inspired by the protests and the city’s response. Pavé has since adapted the work into an opera that will be incidentally playing in Memphis on April 14, the same evening The Searcher premieres on HBO. The Searcher could have sorely used even one or two such thoughtfully dissenting voices as well as a more honest accounting of the racial and political shortcomings of so much Elvis hagiography. (One of the film’s most striking moments is when Schilling recounts Elvis’ response to hearing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in his home city: “He told the truth,” Elvis reportedly said, a fascinating remark that the film declines to elaborate.)

The Searcher may be a bit of a whitewash in a number of respects, but that shouldn’t negate the film’s accomplishments, to say nothing of those of its subject. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Presley’s stunning 1968 “Comeback Special” on NBC, an hour of television when he performed in front of a real audience for the first time in years and reminded the world of what all the fuss had been about, and footage from the special is deftly used by the filmmakers to structure the documentary’s narrative. Just weeks later, Presley recorded “Suspicious Minds,” one of the greatest records of the 1960s and, in my estimation, the finest recording he ever made after leaving Sun for RCA. If you haven’t heard it in a while, go back and listen to it, because precious few human beings have ever sung better. It’s a masterpiece of technique, intelligence, vulnerability, and drama, performed by a man who, at 34 years old, had already found himself suspended somewhere between tall tale and ghost story. Less than nine years later, Elvis Presley would be dead, and I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to hear “Suspicious Minds” in a vacuum, removed from the world that Elvis made and the world that made him. But we can’t escape those histories any more than he could. Caught in a trap, we can’t walk out.