History has been cruel to Elvis Presley in many ways. To most people under 50, he’s known only as a jumpsuit-wearing joke, the man who inspired countless cheesy impersonators and cheap Vegas wedding chapels. But “he was much deeper and smarter than his image,” Jerry Schilling, a member of Elvis’ “Memphis Mafia” inner circle and an executive producer of the new HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher, exclusively tells Closer Weekly. “Elvis was anything but comical. He certainly had a great sense of humor, but we wanted viewers to get to know him as a human being.”
That’s why Jerry, with Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley (who also exec-produced the film), enlisted confidantes, experts, and musical disciples like Bruce Springsteen and the late Tom Petty to offer new insight into the King for this sprawling, three-and-a-half-hour doc. “Elvis was a light for all of us,” Tom says in the film. “We shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off an artist for all the clatter that came later.” Over the 40 years since Elvis’ death from heart failure at age 42, he’s become a one-dimensional caricature to some, but _The Searcher _shows the many sides of his complex personality — scroll down to read all about Elvis’ amazing life!
The Mama’s Boy
It’s no coincidence that Elvis’ first record was “That’s All Right, Mama,” and the film provides a new understanding of why Elvis was so attached to his mother, Gladys Presley, and so devastated by her death at 46 in 1958. Elvis felt connected to his mom after his twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn in 1935, and his father, Vernon Presley, was sent to prison in 1938 for forging a check to try to feed his poverty-stricken family. “Elvis had to step up to be the man of the house at an early age,” says the film’s director, Thom Zimny. Notes Priscilla, “He felt a responsibility to his mother.” She recalls her first visit to Graceland, which Elvis had built for his parents, a few years after Gladys’ death. “I opened up a closet, and it was filled with his mother’s clothes,” she says. “It really showed me the love he had for her.”
The Loyal Client
In retrospect, Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, mismanaged his later career, tying him up with contracts to do terrible movies and refusing to let him tour internationally (maybe because the Colonel had immigrated illegally from the Netherlands and feared not getting back into the US). Still, “The Colonel was not a bad guy,” says Jerry. “He treated Elvis with total respect and vice versa.” Schilling cites Elvis’ inability to break away from the Colonel as the cause of the psychic distress that led to the singer’s ultimately fatal use of drugs. Elvis was torn because he felt a familial devotion to the Colonel for the many smart decisions he made early in his career. “In doing research, I found a letter Elvis wrote him in 1956 thanking him for everything he’d done,” says Jerry. “At the end, he says, ‘I love you like a father.'”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
The Loving Husband
Even though they divorced in 1973 amid allegations of infidelity, Elvis and Priscilla’s burning love never flamed out. “When we got divorced, we held hands in court,” says Priscilla. “There was still a lot of love between us.” Through all the ups and downs, “Elvis was a family man,” says Jerry. “But he was a rock ’n’ roller.” As long as he stayed close to home making movies in the ’60s, “it was conducive to family life,” he adds. Once Elvis went on tour in the ’70s, it proved impossible to sustain the marriage. “We were living two different lives — he was performing, and he was home very little,” Priscilla says. “It was very difficult to communicate at that time.” The divorce “didn’t diminish their love, believe it or not,” says Schilling. “They talked a lot on the phone late at night until the day he died. Elvis always loved Priscilla, and she knows it.”
The Caring Father
Home movies of Elvis with daughter Lisa Marie Presley after her 1968 birth reveal how much he adored her. “I don’t think Lisa ever knew Elvis and Priscilla were divorced,” says Jerry. “Her daddy would go out on the road, and then she would spend time with him at Graceland when he got back.” Although his own father was absent early in his life, Elvis tried to be there for his daughter. “He didn’t have a great example as a model for a paternal relationship,” Alan Light, the film’s co-writer, tells Closer. “That made it difficult for him, but Elvis wanted and aspired to have that kind of connection.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
“He wasn’t a hillbilly who stumbled into success,” says Alan. The Searcher incorporates unseen footage of Elvis in the studio, drawing on his vast knowledge of gospel, country, blues, and pop to create a musical synthesis that had never been heard before. “He was deeply connected to music,” director Zimny tells Closer. “Throughout his life, he turned to music, was healed by it and used it to process the world around him.” Perhaps Tom Petty put it best: “This is Picasso. This is taking your influences and going somewhere with them to a place that’s new. Elvis didn’t get lucky. He had a drive from day one.”
Tragically, that drive died out after he felt obliged to the Colonel to do kitschy movies and Vegas shows. “I lost my friend at an early age due to creative disappointment,” says Jerry. “He was embarrassed by some of the stuff he was doing.” Laments Priscilla, “Those last shows are hard to watch. I don’t even know why he got onstage.” Concludes Tom: “He felt outgunned and gave up.” Yet Elvis’ legacy lives in his music — and The Searcher’s tender tribute. “He was a human being,” says Jerry. “He has four beautiful grandkids he’s never seen. He had a great career, but he deserves so much more. I hope in this film, we give him the credit due.” In any case, for his millions of fans, Elvis remains always on our minds.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
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