Do We Really Need a Refresher Course in Elvis? Sadly, Yes. Here’s a Good One.

There was a time not so long ago when a three-hour film that essentially asked “Who is Elvis Presley?” would have seemed redundant, because pretty much everyone who might have cared already knew.

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Elvis working the stage, circa 1956.

But time marches on, and it marches in double time where popular culture is involved. So HBO’s three-hour documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, has become necessary.

As a bonus, it’s also very good, because it focuses on what matters most about Elvis’s legacy: the music he made before he died in 1977 at the age of 42.

As the first single-name star of the rock ’n’ roll era whose gates he played a big part in blowing open, Elvis got a lot of attention for peripheral things, from on-stage gyrations to the way he curled his lip to jumpsuits and his fondness for Southern comfort food.

None of it would have mattered if he didn’t make music that cut through all of that. Whichever Elvis you liked best, whether it was the almost ethereal sound of his first Sun records, the joyous rock ’n’ roll of his 1950s hits, his gospel records or the ballads of his Vegas years, it made you stop, listen and pay attention.

A thousand singers, including some splendid ones, wanted to be Elvis. He remains singular. He didn’t invent rock ’n’ roll, because that took a village. He simply had a way with music that could turn dreadful songs into fine records and fine songs into superb records.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher, directed by Thom Zimny, illustrates that point with a whole lot of music, some of it the music to which Elvis himself was listening and a good amount of it in more than two-second snatches.

“Just Walkin’ In The Rain” by the Prisonaires, for instance, underscores several critical musical points about Elvis.

First, it explains much about Sam Phillips, who first recorded Elvis for Sun. Resonant black gospel harmony is a sound Phillips liked. So did Elvis.

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The song’s prominence thus also reinforces a broader thesis of The Searcher: that Elvis, consistent with the exhilarating and turbulent musical undercurrents of the 1950s, demolished many of the carefully guarded lines between black and white popular culture.

The narration comes in part from Elvis himself. We also hear from people who worked with him like the late Scotty Moore, his first guitarist; family and friends like his ex-wife Priscilla and his friend Red West; and artists like Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and Bruce Springsteen.

Collectively they make the point that Elvis didn’t have some grand personal career blueprint he meticulously carried out. He knew he wanted to make records, it’s true, but if he’d had his way he’d have then parlayed that recording success into serious movies, not the increasingly trivial musicals in which he spent most of the 1960s.

As a singer he magically became some weird combination of Bo Diddley, Dean Martin, a tent show preacher and a gospel tenor. As an actor he wanted to be Marlon Brando or James Dean. Alas, the closest he came was starring in King Creole, a film that was being developed for Dean before he died in a car crash.

Exactly how Elvis synthesized the music of the poor rural South, often meaning what he heard for free on the radio, has never been definitively spelled out in words, and The Searcher doesn’t crack that code. Like the best Elvis biographies, notably Peter Guralnick’s, it lays out the pieces of the puzzle and admits no one knows exactly how he put them came together. Moore says here what he’s said before, that it wasn’t anything fancy or calculated. It just happened.

Less mystical is what else happened all too soon. Less than seven years after Elvis started recording, he entered the Army, his beloved mother Gladys died and his manager Tom Parker steered him on a course — those 1960s movies and songs as silly as “No Room to Rumba In a Sports Car” — that was lucrative, career-extending and a creative dead end.

He came back with his famous TV special in 1968 — marking the last time he played with Moore, which is a shame in every way — and reclaimed a measure of that creativity by going on the road for much of his last decade.

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Like other writers and biographers, the producers of The Searcher suggest Elvis could have done much more if he had been allowed to follow his own instincts rather than taking the safe, ultimately suffocating path laid out by Parker.

As speaker after speaker notes here, however, Elvis had no road map. Sinatra? Maybe a little. But Elvis came from a different world than Sinatra. His searching was different, his path more complicated because the endpoints were more elusive.

Little of this is new information. But when even the 1968 comeback is now 50 years in the past, a solid refresher course that frames Elvis’s legacy in a respectful and truthful way borders on being essential.

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