By Jeremy Carr.
Embracing a road trip structure, which is always conducive to a film concerning self-reflective journeys of the soul, Eugene Jarecki’s The King takes as its meditative subject not just the meteoritic rise and catastrophic fall of Elvis Presley, but also the corresponding character of the United States, through 70-some years of its own tumultuous history. Beginning as Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V gets meticulously rigged for recording, with an assortment of mounted cameras that will, over the span of several days, multiples cities, and almost two hours of screen time, introduce passengers like Emmylou Harris, Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, and others, Jarecki’s latest documentary survey scratches at the sensitive scars of the American dream. Featuring a host of celebrity companions as well as ordinary citizens, many of whom are either riding shotgun, lounging in the backseat, or crammed in with a crew of three or more, Jarecki’s ambitious biopic-turned-state-saga is a scenic tour through a geographic smorgasbord of society, from modest, depressed rural hamlets to urban backdrops gleaming with all that American prosperity has to offer. Filled with thoughtful and surprisingly convincing parallels to the life and career trajectory of Presley himself, this composite travelogue is an artful analogy, moving through transitional times and symbolic sites, all at one point or another relevant to Presley and all revealing key facets of America’s own complicated constitution.
Before getting to these lofty comparisons, though, The King establishes its individual focus. Put simply and efficiently by the animated political commentator James Carville, “One day there was not Elvis. The next day there was Elvis.” So, to that end, the early portion of Jarecki’s film primarily testifies to Presley’s phenomenal pop impact. Indisputable yet undeniably controversial, this seismic shift in the cultural landscape was, as The King repeatedly underscores, widely divisive, varied, and far more nuanced than the accepted legend would suggest. Interpretations of Presley’s significance are as diverse as the miscellaneous musings on what defines the most truthful definition of American ambition. And for Jarecki, these two assessments are not entirely distinct.
Case in point: the working-class town of Tupelo, Mississippi. Known predominantly as Presley’s birthplace, that trivial relevance is good for the tourist trade, but for the average resident, Tupelo is a downtrodden community with marked demographic and economic partitions. Despite what the area may signify in terms of Presley’s humble origins, for those who were not lucky enough to find fame and fortune elsewhere, their take on the current state of American opportunity isn’t so starry-eyed. In that regard, peculiar and captivating though it may be, the image of Presley’s Rolls-Royce (price tag around $400,000) cruising through these demoralized regions is something of a cruel joke. David Simon, creator of The Wire, contends that Jarecki should have picked one of Presley’s Cadillacs – at least that would have been an American car.
Throughout The King, Jarecki and his team of editors assemble extracts of a national past that is both shocking and inspirational, and, continually bringing Presley into the mix, yields an inevitable application to music. Always reflexive of society, for better or worse, music has prodigiously tapped into issues of poverty, injustice, and crime, and with the blues, for example, so vital to Presley’s oeuvre, one sees a genre born from shared experience. Unfortunately, that experience was often at the tragic expense of mistreated African Americans. So, like many of the thematic threads woven in The King, this racial component leads to discussion about Presley, namely his proper role in the era of civil rights and whether his assimilation of musical forms, specifically those created by Black musicians, should be applauded or derided. On the one hand, arguing Presley could and should have done more for the culture he so openly appreciated, there is Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who cities one of the lines from his groundbreaking song “Fight the Power”: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.” On the other hand, there is the fact that music, indeed most all art, has evolved via the very process of cultural appropriation; see, as the film illustrates, the Presley hit “Hound Dog,” written by Jewish songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, first performed (magnificently) by African American Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, and subsequently recorded more than 250 times, only one of which was Presley’s famous rendition. Who gets credit for such an achievement? Who should? And what do those answers say about America inspiration?
Raising these questions and many others, often without satisfactory or even conceivable resolutions, The King takes a winding road with manifold detours along the way, exorcising self-destructive demons and analyzing present-day political conditions. Jarecki’s trek happened to coincide with the 2016 election, a chance occurrence but one that now seems essential to the film’s premise and some of its more provocative, downbeat content (watch as Baldwin asserts with great confidence, “Trump is not going to win”). The King has a necessarily elaborate scope, filling its duration with an audio-visual synthesis of archival radio broadcasts, television programs and movies, and a wide-ranging soundtrack, including the dynamic teenage country singer Emi Sunshine, an extraordinary young talent who says she was first inspired by Elvis’ “spirit.” Transcendent and pensive, that spirit, or some variation of it, seems to overwhelm nearly everyone who makes an appearance in the film; just the act of sitting in Presley’s car and reflecting on what it represents brings singer-songwriter John Hiatt to tears, which in turn has a similar effect on the viewer.
Among those interviewed, Canadian Mike Myers hits on an exceptionally pointed association between the country and artist of The King’s proposal. America, he notes, has ruled the world with images, and in telling this dual tale, Jarecki accumulates an array of graphic allusions and juxtapositions, encompassing the complimentary nature of celebrity and capitalism – The Beatles and Muhammad Ali, James Dean and John Wayne, the KKK, and King Kong – all of which inexorably link to Elvis Presley in particular and American interests generally. War and addiction, imperialism, corruption, and the flat-out absurdity of modern America; so much is compiled and presented in The King, more or less cohesively, that one sometimes wonders how it’s all going to fit. But that’s sort of the point: This bombardment of disparate sights and sounds, settings and individuals, are what has likewise defined America for decades. In The King, it all settles together about as well as it does in everyday reality, which may work for some but is bound to leave others overwhelmed. That most of it manages to connect with Presley is impressive either way.
Jarecki, the award-winning director of such similarly penetrating films as Why We Fight (2005) and The House I Live In (2012), seems to revel in The King’s obviously heavy load. Setting aside the moment when the Rolls breaks down, there are numerous instances of self-referential deliberation. Jarecki makes no attempt to hide the construct of his film, nor does he shy away from acknowledging its work-in-progress premise, asking himself what it’s all about and what exactly is he trying to say. The King, known as “Promised Land” when its premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is an engrossing blend of artistry and emotion, with a remarkable historical and contemporary acuity. As a biography, it hits the standard notes of Presley’s life, but more than that, as a clearly considered metaphor, effective and compelling, the film thrives on its applied national correlation. Concluding with Presley’s inauspicious death in the bathroom of his Graceland residence and the election of Donald Trump, the film comes to an oddly apposite, figurative finale.
While there is considerable doom and gloom evoked in The King, there are also moments of great entertainment and joy. Presley may have passed away at a premature age, under unfortunate circumstances, but Jarecki’s film remains hopeful, hopeful in that America endures. It is a country, after all, that produces a film like The King, which isn’t the type of probing, critical work permissible in every nation of the world. And though the American fabric may be sewn together with idealized fabrications, from that fantasy there can emerge a figure like Elvis Presley. As he sifts through the disorder with a spade of cynical disillusionment, Jarecki reveals hard truths about the American dream (as one individual says later in the film, it’s stagnant at best), but he also posits a feeling of optimism. When it comes to the bestowed right of pursuing happiness, that happiness means different things to different people, at different times and in different places, and as author Greil Marcus observes, traveling along iconic Route 66 and beholding vast portions of a landscape – and a nation – just waiting to be discovered, the complex chronicle of American history is a story still being written. If nothing else, even if the high is short-lived, there’s always the potential of a 1968 comeback special.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.