Here is Elvis, rehabbed at last and brought down from his lofty and lunatic afterlife as an icon, reminding us that he was once just a man.
Of course, he was never just any man, he was ELVIS - from birth, it seems. The surviving twin of a doting mother, raised up from the Depression dirt of Tupelo and postwar slums of Memphis, opening his mouth in front of Sam Phillips' microphone and seamlessly merging black and white American song traditions into a form that was new and everlasting. He was imbued with the holy spirit of gospel music and landed instead on something faddishly called rock 'n' roll.
With a raft of producers that includes Priscilla Presley, director Thom Zimny's insightful and stirring 3 1/2-hour HBO documentary, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" is a fine demonstration of how the passage of time can help place even the biggest and most overloved superstars into a blessed relief. The film is a calm and deeply empathetic recounting of Presley's life, split in two. The first half takes us up to 1960 and his career-interrupting military service; the second half is, well, the rest of Elvis: movie star, obsessive workhorse, sweat-drenched showman, tragic figure.
A careful melange of archival film and sonic clarity, "The Searcher" is a fine reassessment of Presley's origins and impact. Its many sources, whether alive or dead (from Elvis himself to "Colonel" Tom Parker to writers such as Alan Light and Jon Landau and musicians such as Robbie Robertson and Emmylou Harris) are heard in interviews rather than seen by a camera, which helps maintain a serious focus.
The only place "The Searcher" feels noticeably incomplete is when the end arrives, perhaps out of deference to Priscilla's involvement (the couple divorced in 1973) or perhaps as a trade-off for access to a trove of archival material. Elvis' death at age 42 in 1977 is seen more as a release from misery than a preventable excess, and there's not one peep about his amazing and profitable afterlife as a dead icon.
The documentary also seems determined to settle old scores with Colonel Parker, who died in 1997 and whose management of Presley's career is portrayed here as cruelly constrictive and creatively tragic, choosing for his client a path strewn with cornball movies and, in the final years, Las Vegas servitude. A suggestive theory sort of hangs there: Even the King was beholden to the man, but still he rises.