Let’s start with what you do know about Elvis. Like “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” “The Pelvis” nickname coupled with said pelvis’ Ed Sullivan Show debut. The stint in the Army, where he met a pretty girl named Priscilla. The feel-good films and the triumphant ’68 TV special. And the endless tabloid fodder that followed, even after his 1977 death at just 42.
But do you know why Elvis moved the way he moved? Chose the songs he sang? Suffered so beneath the weight of the very fame he craved? Priscilla — Elvis’ only bride and lifelong confidante — and a handful of insiders did. Three years ago, the former Mrs. Presley and the pair’s longtime friend Jerry Schilling conceived a music-centric project that would finally reveal an Elvis new to even his most ardent fans. “There’s so many people’s perspectives out there, scholars saying that they know Elvis and ‘he was very complex,’” Priscilla says. “He could be complex. But when you see the whole story, it’s pretty simple: He’s a man who loved music, and he was an artist, first and foremost.” An exhaustive search for just the right storyteller led them to Emmy-winning music documentarian Thom Zimny, who both embraced and shared their vision and passion.
The result of that collaboration is Elvis Presley: The Searcher, a stirring, three-hour deep dive into the King’s ever-evolving relationship with music and fame that features rare photos and footage plus interviews with Elvis intimates and modern musical geniuses impacted by the King. “Priscilla and Jerry felt Elvis’ history had become a shorthand and details were left out,” Zimny explains. “Details of a man far beyond the iconic images. Images and music that hadn’t been explored. Listening to Priscilla describe the intensity of Elvis’ eyes, all of a sudden it opened up how I would look at all the shows, all the TV performances, and I got the sense of ‘Nothing is going to ever be the same. We’re never going to look at the Sullivan Show the same. We’re never going to see his story the same.’ You get into that psychic space of how the man lived with music, how it moved him emotionally, spiritually. And you hope that a generation will see that they didn’t understand him.”
Especially toward the end of his life.
“Songs like ‘Hurt’ and ‘An American Trilogy’ and what they meant to him broke the myth that Elvis lost it at the end,” says Zimny. “The beauty and the power of Elvis’ voice in those last recordings are still there. Spiritually, the artist was lost and hurting, but the connection to the music is in all of the last recordings. We didn’t end on the story of Elvis dying — because it was so much bigger than that.”
We sat down with Zimny and Priscilla Presley recently to talk about the man, the myths and their impactful, indelible movie. This is what Elvis’ queen told us about the King.
My favorite thing about The Searcher is that its backbone is what an ardent student of the human condition Elvis was — human movement, expression, emotion. Tell me about that choice.
Priscilla Presley: People got sidetracked on, let’s say, his jumpsuits. They’re embellished! Or his movies. They weren’t the best movies and he knew that. But they never really got the depths of him as an artist. That his choice of music, even from a very young age, was way beyond his years. He mixed black and white music, he mixed country and rhythm and blues and even crooning because of his love of music. He sang a song from the feeling that he got from that music, and so his voice connected with people. How about that the first song that he sang in public was “Old Shep?” At that age, who sings “Old Shep,” which is a heart-wrenching story? Elvis. Because that’s how deep he was into music, feelings.
To that end, we also see how much gospel music was his lifelong lifeline…
Gospel was his connection to hope. To faith. To someone. To his Maker. Sometimes I think, “What, who did he have to confide in — to really expose himself?” It was gospel music. From the very beginning, he would go to church with his parents, and it was freedom for him because of the movement. The “holy rollers” would black out, not from just listening to music, but from spirituality. He had that, too, but he was made fun of for moving with the music. He could not believe that he was being criticized because he moved.
You truly had a front-row seat to his musical evolution.
I feel so fortunate. At 14, when I met him, I was still listening to was Ricky Nelson, Bobby Rydell, Tab Hunter, but Elvis, the music that he played on his record player when I would visit, was music that I never heard of. Country. Rhythm and blues. Gospel. He taught me so much in that time period about music and where his roots were and what he gravitated to and the feelings that he had for songs. He taught me so much about music and where his roots were and what he gravitated to and the feelings that he had for songs.
A lot of those songs that he played were connected to things that he felt. Being in the Army. Not having a mother. Being over there alone in Germany on maneuvers. He’d never been out of the United States — just very small, regional areas. He was never really alone in his life and now he’s taken out of the pop culture, taken out of his music at the top of his career. I got to see a different side of him.
To some fans, Colonel Tom Parker is a villain — the source of bad advice, bad business moves. Tell me about humanizing that relationship in The Searcher.
Without really knowing it, Elvis was already becoming a commodity while he was in Germany, because [Colonel Parker and RCA] were working to keep his records coming out. They were successful, but he was nervous about going back to the States. He didn’t know if his fans, if offers would still be there for him, because his fans were already growing up. He had matured over there, and his choice of songs had matured, as well.
We all truly feel that Colonel Parker did love Elvis. It’s just Colonel was, first and foremost, a promoter. He did get Elvis to heights he never would have reached. There were times Elvis would be very embarrassed about him, when he’d get all dressed up in his get-ups. But he was promoting. Elvis was also very loyal, and it was hard to make that break, because he did get him where he wanted to go. Bottom line, Elvis just outgrew Colonel Parker.
A truly gut-punch part of The Searcher is how the musical renaissance that Elvis helped launch passed him by while he was doing one fluff movie after the next. Do you still wonder who he might have become had he been allowed to observe and exist musically alongside those artists?
He was still doing movies when the Beatles, the British invasion, exploded and he would say he just didn’t know what to do — because suddenly he’s the only solo singer. He’s going, “Where do I go? What do I do from here? Do I just give it all up and go to movies and just be an actor?” What [the ’68 special] did was it gave him confidence that, “I still have it, so now I’m going to start touring and I’m going to go to Vegas.” To do what he loved to do, which is perform in front of an audience.
Elvis truly did have a magnetism like none other.
Listen, I’ve been around the greats, from Muhammad Ali to Sammy Davis Jr to Frank Sinatra, and I’ve never felt it — not like when Elvis walked into a room. It’s electrifying. You can feel it before he walks in. … I saw him perform in the ’68 special, but that was that was staged. He was really good, but I’d seen him do that at home, jamming. When I saw him in Vegas that first night, I was blown away. It was like slow motion, watching at the end as everybody is standing up. All his peers. Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, all standing. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, all standing up — and I’m watching, going, “Oh my God.” And here I was married to him!
Elvis Presley: The Searcher premieres April 14 at 8/7c on HBO
Stream on: Hulu & HBO NOW