Eugene Jarecki's intriguing new film The King is a state-of-the-union assessment by way of an Elvis Presley documentary. Infinitely more interested in the American culture in which Elvis became "The King" and the parallels that can be drawn between his rise and fall and the rise and fall of that culture, The King doesn't necessarily dig up anything new, although it does churn up the waters of history and biography enough to make some interesting connections and maybe even make you sit up a few times and want to pay closer attention. Elvis as metaphor for the America Dream is as old hat as baseball and apple pie, but Jarecki (Why We Fight, The House I Live In) still makes it work because it's such a rich metaphor that never quite gets exhausted.
Jarecki structures the documentary around a cross-country trip in nothing less than Elvis's 1963 silver Rolls-Royce, which more than one person notes is a curious choice for the all-American Elvis. But, alas, contradiction and paradoxes are part and parcel of any discussion of Elvis, whose meteoric rise to the heights of pop culture stardom is matched only by his descent into late-stage self-parody, which is matched only by his star being even bigger in death. Four decades after his untimely demise at the age of 42 (42-was he really that young?), Elvis has never been bigger, which is part of what makes The King still feel pertinent. Its relevancy has less to do with the connections it tries to make between Elvis's fall and the grotesque rise of Trump's America than it does with the continued cult of personality and seemingly infinite power of stardom. At this point, Elvis is no longer the icon of the American Dream, but rather the epitome of corporate branding, his familiarity launching a million commercial ships.
As Jarecki drives Elvis's Rolls across the country, starting in the King's innocuous birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, and winding his way through various cities that defined his legacy, including Nashville, Hollywood, New York City, and Las Vegas, he picks up various musicians, actors, celebrities, and Elvis aficionados, all of whom have their own take on Presley and what he meant. A lot of the faces are familiar and don't make immediate sense in an Elvis documentary, including actors Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher, Mike Myers, and Ethan Hawke and political consultant/talking head James Carville, but they each offer something that ties into the larger picture (Hawke, for example, lays out a cogent assessment of what has changed in the American landscape when he notes that, in his father's era, the U.S. was known for its democracy, while now it is known for its capitalism). Other participants make more immediate sense, such as Chuck D., whose angry take-down of Presley in Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" would seem to suggest similar criticisms to come, but instead he ruminates on the commercial pressures behind Sam Phillips pushing Elvis past the black performers who preceded and helped influence him and notes that culture, by its nature, is meant to be shared.
In terms of Elvis's biography, The King hits all the familiar highs and lows and will therefore probably not prove informative to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of his biography-his meteoric rise, his being drafted into the Army, his nearly decade-long disappearance into the void of bad Hollywood movies, his re-emergence as a long-running Vegas act. The film touches on some of the darker corners of his legacy, not just the racial issue of musical appropriation, but also his eventual drug addiction and his not inconspicuous absence from the Civil Rights movement, which gained much traction from the participation of other musical figures. But, again, Jarecki is less interested in Elvis as a historical figure than he is as a symbol, and what he finds again and again is that the decline of the King-the slow downward pull from musical legend to punchline-has its analogy in American culture history, and he finds that right now we are at the end of the line, bloated and addicted and garishly bejeweled, a shadow of what we once were even as we pronounce ourselves great once again.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Oscilloscope
Overall Rating: (3)
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