How Tom Petty Became the Key to HBO's Elvis Presley Documentary

By: Elvis Australia
Source: Steve Pond
May 12, 2018

Less than seven months before his death, Petty did an interview that got to the heart of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve with 'Elvis Presley: The Searcher'.

HBO's two-part documentary 'Elvis Presley: The Searcher' covers lots of ground and talks to lots of people who were close to Elvis. But according to director Thom Zimny and producer Jon Landau, a key to the film came from one of the last people they interviewed: Tom Petty, who sat down to talk about Elvis in March 2017, less than seven months before his unexpected death.

'What Tom did, perhaps more than anybody, was tell the story that we were trying to tell', said Landau, the longtime manager of Bruce Springsteen, who is also interviewed in 'The Searcher'. 'Tom started talking about the later part of Elvis' career, which is typically dealt with dismissively. He said, 'Yeah, but when you put all the craziness aside, there is still this incredible singer, surrounded by this incredible band'.

'And he chose, as an example, this piece called 'American Trilogy', a very corny but soulful and beautiful trilogy that Elvis used to do. Tom described exactly what it meant to have Elvis transcend the corniness to do something so stirring and so great. Thom [Zimny] and I had been planning to use 'American Trilogy' all along, but Tom spontaneously brought it into the discussion on its own'.

Petty, added Zimny, was one of the final interviews that was done for 'The Searcher'. 'I've had no experience like that interview before', said the director, whose other work includes editing a dozen episodes of 'The Wire' and directing several documentaries about Springsteen.

'Tom seemed completely in sync with the film I was talking about for many years with Jon. The 'American Trilogy' sequence was an idea between Jon and I: How can we bring the interpretation of his later touring career to a different place? And Tom just went there'.

Petty is only one of many voices in 'The Searcher', a two-part, four-hour chronicle of Elvis' life and career. But one of his comments could serve as a mission statement for the film: '[Elvis] had no road map and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. And we shouldn't make the mistake of writing off a great artist because of all the clatter that came later. We should dwell in what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music'.

The film began when Priscilla Presley, Elvis' ex-wife and a key figure in the Elvis estate, approached HBO with the idea of a new documentary using rare footage from the archives. HBO went to Landau, who in his younger days as a rock critic wrote one of the first serious appraisals of the '70s Elvis as a musical and cultural force.

'My idea was to tell the story from the beginning to the end, good times and bad times', Landau said. 'Elvis' weaknesses, his bad decisions, the things he had no control over because of the Colonel [his manager, Colonel Tom Parker] - we have to cover all those things, but I don't want the film to be about those things.

'I ultimately wanted this thing to be about this genius. Because I believe he was a genius from start to finish, even when he was recording the soundtrack to 'Clambake'.

Zimny said Landau was an important voice in the making of the film - but so was Priscilla, who provided the film's title when she commented that Elvis spent his whole life as 'a searcher'.

'It almost became a joke when we were in the editing room', said Landau. 'Anytime we got stumped, I would say, 'Why don't we add more Priscilla?' Because everything she said was so empathetic and intelligent'.

Like every other interview subject, though, Priscilla is never seen on camera talking about Elvis. All the interviews in 'The Searcher' were audio-only, with none of the talking-head footage that is standard in documentaries like this. And while the four hours contain Elvis footage that we've seen before, the filmmakers made a conscious effort to find a new approach.

'The idea was not to repeat images of Elvis that we had seen 1000 times', said Zimny. 'And by not cutting to a talking head sitting in a chair, it gives you freedom. It's daunting at first because you have Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen or Robbie Robertson talking, and you have to come up with an image. But I loved the idea of finding outtakes or using Super 8 footage that doesn't feel like it's from a clip reel. We wanted to keep away from the VH1 language.

'I felt that we had to trust that the audience has an understanding of Elvis' story, so let's focus on the beats between the big moments. He wanted to do a gospel song on the Ed Sullivan show? Let's concentrate on that, not on how he was shot from the waist up'.

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Articles about Elvis Presley Elvis Presley: The Searcher is the definitive movie about The King

Following his creative journey from childhood through the final 1976 Jungle Room recording sessions, the two-part presentation Elvis Presley: The Searcher includes stunning atmospheric shots taken inside Graceland, Elvis' iconic home, and features more than 20 new, primary source interviews with session players, producers, engineers, directors and other artists who knew him or who were profoundly influenced by him, as well as never-before-seen photos and footage from private collections worldwide.

Buy Now.

3 CD Deluxe Set – 8"x 8" slipcase w/ 40 page book

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack)
Catalogue #: 19075806732
Barcode: 0190758067322
Release Date: 06.04.18
Format: 3CD – 8"x 8" slipcase w/ 40 page book

Elvis Presley: The Searcher 3 CD Deluxe 8"x 8" Box Set w/ 40 page book in slipcase.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher 3 CD Deluxe 8"x 8" Box Set w/ 40-page book in slipcase.

The new multi-part documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher, directed by Thom Zimny pushes past the larger-than-life image of The King of Rock and Roll, portraying him instead as a man and an artist 'who wanted to heal, to find that thing that was always felt to be missing, and to do it through the music'.

The 3CD deluxe edition box set offers an expanded 55-track overview of Elvis' career as heard in the film including familiar hit recordings ('Heartbreak Hotel', 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?'), powerful vocal performances ('That's All Right', 'Tomorrow Is a Long Time', 'Trouble/Guitar Man') and rare outtakes ('Suspicious Minds', 'Separate Ways'), plus a bonus disc of additional recordings relevant to the film - including singles that inspired Presley (Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's original version of 'That's All Right', Odetta's gospel version of Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow is a Long Time') and two original instrumental pieces composed for the documentary by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) [Deluxe] includes a 40-page book of photos, liner notes by Warren Zanes, and a producers note from film director Thom Zimny.


Disc 1

1) Trouble / Guitar Man
2) My Baby Left Me
3) Baby, What You Want Me To Do
4) Old Shep
5) That's When Your Heartaches Begin
6) That's All Right
7) Blue Moon Of Kentucky
8) Fool, Fool, Fool
9) Tweedlee Dee
10) Baby Let's Play House
11) Good Rockin' Tonight
12) Trying To Get To You
13) Blue Moon
14) When It Rains It Pours
15) Blue Christmas
16) Heartbreak Hotel
17) Lawdy, Miss Clawdy
18) Money Honey
19) Hound Dog
20) (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)
21) Crawfish
22) Trouble
23) Farther Along
24) Mona Lisa
25) Hide Thou Me
26) Loving You
27) Lonely Man (solo version)
28) Power Of My Love

Disc 2

1) Milky White Way
2) A Mess Of Blues
3) Fame And Fortune
4) Love Me Tender / Witchcraft (duet with Frank Sinatra)
5) Like A Baby
6) Are You Lonesome Tonight?
7) It's Now Or Never
8) Wooden Heart
9) Swing Down Sweet Chariot
10) Reconsider Baby
11) Bossa Nova Baby
12) C'mon Everybody
13) Tomorrow Is A Long Time
14) Take My Hand, Precious Lord
15) Run On
16) Baby What You Want Me To Do (1. Version)
17) Suspicious Minds (take 6)
18) Baby Let's Play House (rehearsal)
19) Words (rehearsal)
20) That's All Right
21) Never Been To Spain
22) An American Trilogy
23) You Gave Me A Mountain
24) Burning Love (rehearsal version)
25) Separate Ways (rehearsal version)
26) Hurt (take 5)
27) If I Can Dream

Disc 3

1) Dissollution 2 – Mike McCready
2) Satisfied - The Blackwood Brothers
3) That's' All Right - Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup
4) She May Be Yours (But She Comes To See Me Sometimes) - Joe Hill Louis
5) Mystery Train - Little Junior's Blue Flames
6) Smokestack Lightning - Howlin' Wolf
7) Rock-A-My Soul - The Blackwood Brothers
8) Just Walkin' In The Rain - The Prisonaires
9) Rocket 88 - Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats
10) Write Me A Letter - The Ravens
11) Blue Moon Of Kentucky - Bill Monroe
12) Ain't That Right - Eddie Snow
13) Just Walkin' In The Rain – Johnnie Ray
14) Home Sweet Home - Gladys Presley
15) Blowin' In The Wind – Odetta
16) Tomorrow Is A Long Time – Odetta
17) The Weight - The Staple Singers
18) Heartbreak Hotel - The Orlons
19) Wooden Heart - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
20) Rebound - Mike McCready

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

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