Eugene Jarecki’s “The King” is a moving masterpiece of music, pop culture montage and Big American Metaphor.
Yeah, it’s about Elvis and race and rock’n roll and America at the Trump Moment.
And it’s packed with interviews, from Elvis friends and Elvis fans to Elvis experts, throwing in a couple of haters — just one, really — for “balance.” Layers of TV and radio news coverage of Elvis and the world we live in today weave in and out of images of the Elvis Era and Beyond, although one of the most pointed arguments presented here is that we’re still in the Elvis Era, 30 years after his death. Performances of Elvis influences and Elvis himself and those who came after him are folded in.
That turns the movie into something the best written biographies of Elvis — both Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick are among those interviewed — accomplish. It “rescues” him from his legacy, his more backward fans, his impersonators and the “cultural appropriation police.”
Jarecki’s gimmick here was acquiring the use of an Elvis car. No, it’s not one of his legion of Cadillacs, “which would have been poetic,” TV writer David Simon (“The Wire,” “Treme”) complains.
John Hiatt (“The Thing Called Love”), another interview subject, the singer-songwriter of a song about Presley’s “pretty pretty Cadillacs with Tennessee plates,” gets in the back of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce to be interviewed and perform a song and breaks down in tears.
Here it is, “the trap” that all that fame, all that money, the times he came up in and the “follow the money” path Col. Parker always insisted that he take, Hiatt suggests. So yes, even the wrong car is the perfect metaphor for the Elvis story arc.
And as we hear newscasters, opinionators and others lament, “What is WRONG with America?” in a 2016 election cycle blur on the soundtrack, the rapper Immortal Technique slides into the backseat, about to perform one of his angry, protest-tinged songs and drops this on us.
America is “Elvis about to O.D.,” he says, a nod to Trump and America’s decline. All that’s left now is dying on the toilet before our time.
Jarecki (“Why We Fight,” “Reagan”) is going for a more hopeful film than that, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Elvis analogy that’s been dangling in front of us for decades — taking greedy, cowardly short term gain with catastrophic long-term consequences — is merely writ large and indeed written in stone as “The King” makes its way to theaters.
The movie covers familiar Elvisiana — taking the Rolls (which breaks down, here and there) to Tupelo, the poor (mostly black) neighborhood where Elvis was born, to Memphis and neon-lit fame, New York and glory, the Army, the “Hollywood Years,” “The Comeback Special,” Vegas and The End.
Along the way, musicians walking in his footsteps crawl into the back seat and play, most charmingly, young Knoxville Blue Grass singer Emi Sunshine and Memphis soul-singing teens from the Stax Music Academy. Some of them have thoughts on Elvis, some just have a song.
And other musicians, biographers, actors (Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers), journalists (Dan Rather), old friends and girlfriends and Memphis Mafia alumni tell his story, often in the front seat of this car that winds from Memphis to New York, and out to Las Vegas and back to Memphis.
CNN’s Van Jones remembers how much his father, another Memphis native, “hated” Elvis, how he’d taken black music and culture and gotten famous and “given nothing back.” Jones challenges Jarecki, “Why do you care so much about rescuing Elvis?” He quotes Public Enemy’s Chuck D and the song “Fight the Power,” with its infamous Elvis “was a straight-up racist” lyric.
Then a mellower Chuck D shows up and recalls thinking that at the time, but softening on the whole cultural appropriation thing as he’s matured. He may be the marvel of all these interviews, ruminating on the crushing weight of that level of fame, the circumscribed choices Elvis was shoehorned into and declaring an appreciation for the singer’s authenticity.
TV writer Simon is more blunt. Haters? “They’re not listening to the records,” the amalgam of country, gospel and blues Elvis channeled into something new.
James Carville talks about how the world changed, in an instant, with Presley’s arrival. Alec Baldwin weighs in on the physical beauty, “the most perfect looking guy ever” that was part of the package, Hawke and Mike Myers (?!) gripe about the fateful decision to “go Hollywood.”
“Celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity,” Myers notes. And he knows.
Jarecki edits in footage of the original “King Kong” to illustrate a performer trapped by fame, includes clips of Presley’s over-rehearsed “keep my opinions to myself” mantra (had to be The Colonel talking) as Jones wonders how different the world might have been had Presley walked with Martin Luther King Jr., just once, or turned up at the “I Have Dream” speech in D.C. (with legions of other celebrities). It might have risked his celebrity, but might have reflected more of who he really was.
We can’t know, the film suggests. We cannot ever know what it was like to, as a late Elvis hit posited, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”
“He had it all,” songwriter Mary Gauthier declares, “and he had more of it than anybody had ever had.”
Just like America. And the film argues that just like Elvis, America is suck in the past, living in “the politics of nostalgia.” Bloated, unable to make the smart decision when faces with the easier, expedient one, unwilling to speak out when the need to speak out was never greater, drug addicted, lost and fat — and not just in the rural Trump-centric places that still worship Elvis, either.
It’s the American Dream we mourn when we focus our mind and not just our heart and ears on Elvis, the opportunities of the country a country boy like him came up in.
Jarecki’s film, his most thoughtful and oracular, had so many interviews and so many musicians that many you see on its IMDB page didn’t make the final cut. Frankly, I’d have lost Baldwin and Myers and a couple of others to get at one guy who hasn’t just followed Elvis, studied Elvis and gone through the dark side of fame with Elvis. Nicolas Cage, who married Elvis’ daughter, would have been a real coup and added something important to an already important, wonderfully-crafted argument and film.
But what’s here is enough, a stand-out documentary in a year already littered with glittering, delightful titles.
It’ll be on PBS at some point, but don’t wait. Seeing it in a cinema has a hint of religious experience about it.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast: Elvis Presley, Eugene Jarecki, Ethan Hawke, Emmylou Harris, Chuck D, John Hiatt, Immortal Technique, Alec Baldwin
Credits: Directed by Eugene Jarecki, script by Eugene Jarecki and Christopher St. John. A Oscilloscope release.
Running time: 1:48