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

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”

Elvis Presley The Searcher HBO

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 that premieres on HBO on Saturday. 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.”