One of the first voices we hear in The King is former United States Senator James Carville “You have no idea how hard he hit American culture.” He is referring, of course, to Elvis Presley, who in the 1950’s exploded onto the American stage of popular culture. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that he invented the American stage of popular culture. In his brilliant documentary, director Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) can’t find anyone who would disagree. But as with everything in life, it’s just a bit more complicated than that.
The King is based on a simple premise- with access to a 1963 Rolls Royce he owned, and nearing the 40th anniversary of his death, Jarecki takes his film crew on a road trip across America, tracing the path that Elvis’ life took- from his humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, to the famous Sun Studios in Memphis, to the television studios where most of America saw him perform in New York, to Hollywood, and of course to Las Vegas where he lived out his twilight years. Along the way he interviews the people who knew him best, along with famous fans (Ethan Hawke, David Simon, Alec Baldwin to name a few) and famous followers (Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt) to find out about Elvis’ rise- and his tragic fall. Young musicians who follow in the lineage of Elvis, whether knowingly or not, come along for a ride, singing and playing beautifully in the backseat. It is a documentary full of unbridled life, passionate joy, and ultimately, ending in tragedy (the 2016 election)- just like the life of Elvis. Yet Jarecki, who made his name with political documentaries like Why We Fight, The Trials Of Henry Kissinger, and Reagan, is certainly up to more than telling the story of Elvis’ life, as many have already done.
Depending on who you ask, 1954 one of the best times for America. The post war economy was booming, with a young generation who had grown up during the war revitalized with a sense of identity and urgency. They were ready to invest in America. But identity can’t exist alone on hard work and family- young people need something to help them explain their raging hormones. Elvis coasted in on a perfect storm- a generation of young white people craving the vibrant releases of the black rhythm & blues, soul, and jazz music- releases they couldn’t have, because they were blocked by segregation. Elvis, of course, was white, and therefore permissable. He came out like a match and a broken gas line. But after every explosion, the smoke clears and you can see what’s left over.
At one point Jarecki meets a driver who accuses him of having no grasp on the film he is making. Stating he is making a half thought attempt at paralelling the rise and fall of Elvis to the rise and fall of America. Is he wrong? Because often, the film is a bit of a reach. It feels more like the type of conversation you would have with some nerdy friends after a few drinks in a dive bar, than a real documentary. Yet that is what makes it so enthralling. As if Jarecki had an itch he wanted to scratch, went for it, and found layers upon layers to peel back. So he decided to keep going. What he ended up with is one of the most thoughtful films about America I have ever seen.
In a time where nobody can seem to agree on basic facts, and folks would rather dig deeper into their foxholes, the fearless curiosity of this film comes as a passionate salve. What a relief to engage in this kind of socio-political discourse- one that will assuredly alienate many people who just wanted to watch a greatest hits recollection of the life of Elvis. For example, during one scene, Chuck D digs deep into his feelings on the man, explaining his thoughts behind his famous line “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me/Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain/Mother fuck him and John Wayne.” I don’t see how your typical devoted white Elvis fan doesn’t just walk out after that part. That’s what makes this such a fascinating watch- for it to work, you have to be willing to look in the mirror and analyze the flaws and faults and triumphs of things you might love dearly- something that, as Americans, we have a hard time doing (or are just straight up unwilling to do).
Jarecki shot most of this in 2016- many of the radio talk shows playing in the background of a scene are about the various headlines of the Clinton/Trump race. At one point, Alec Baldwin takes a poll of people on the street in New York City, asking who was going to vote for whom. He then looks at the camera and says point blank “He’s not going to win.” It plays as a punch to the gut, and you have to laugh to keep from crying. Most Americans proceeded through 2016 as if it were a hard year that would soon be over, but hopefully end with our first female President and a new lease on American life. But our country sort of died on November 8th, 2016, bloated, high and on a golden toilet. It was a tragedy we all wish we could magically undo- but it ends up being the perfect coda for The King.
Jarecki’s journey ends in a final montage, tying up the film in a perfect bow- and is one of the best scenes in any movie you will see this year. The King makes us ask of America, as in the lyrics of “Unchained Melody”- “Are you still mine?”
The King opens today at the Ritz Bourse.