2018, NR, 107 min. Directed by Eugene Jarecki.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 20, 2018
Why would the documentarian who has explored the American penal system as a human rights violation machine (The House I Live In), and the dominating force of militarism in American politics (Why We Fight) suddenly decide to take Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V on a road trip across the continental U.S.?
Rather than being a change of tone, pace, or subject for Eugene Jarecki (brother to Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki), The King merely takes his exploration of the nature of post-World War II America on the road, but is no less focused nor brilliantly incisive than his early work. His theorem is simple: If Elvis was the definitional American icon, what does that say about America?
Coming out the same year as HBO's masterful, two-part Elvis: The Searcher, it may seem a little redundant to have a second sociological study of the King's rise and fall. But that Presley estate-sanctioned documentary was really for musicologists; Jarecki uses an array of voices and faces who were in some way touched by Elvis (i.e., everyone on the planet) to dissect how he was shaped by America. He's the ultimate poor boy made good, the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness personified: but pursuit doesn't mean you ever catch up. As Mike Myers (an unexpected voice of reason in this tapestry of takes and opinions) describes it, celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity, and for all his success, Elvis comes out of it looking like a victim of exploitation.
As he proves again, few directors have Jarecki's skill for pulling a massive stack of disparate themes – race, celebrity, power, wealth, drug addiction, poverty, militarism – into one coherent narrative. The road trip process helps, allowing him to weave together an extraordinary and broad array of voices, from Memphis Mafia buddy Jerry Schilling talking about sneaking into black clubs on Beale Street, or Emmylou Harris in awe of the legend, or the always surprisingly astute Ashton Kutcher discussing the caustic nature of fame, or the King's maid Nancy Rooks, her heart still pierced by watching him die. Sometimes their words are what give The King insight, and sometimes it's in the silence of a hitchhiker and his dog flagging the most unlikely lift in the middle of the desert, or John Hiatt bursting into tears on the back seat. It's the myth of Elvis vs. the reality, played out as a grand tragedy.
It's also a warning. With the road trip laid out against the background of the 2016 election, Jarecki makes a subtle argument that, like Elvis, there needs to be a broader change. Celebrity has become the last currency, and if these are the Vegas years, he contends, then that gold toilet may be closer than any of us think.
Of course, Jarecki cannot ignore the complicated cultural legacy of Elvis and the Sun Record Company, and the constant allegations of cultural appropriation, and the white boy stealing black music. But this is Jarecki, so there's no glancing blow on the subject. Instead, he dives right in, balancing surprising observations from Chuck D (who famously rapped "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me") and former Obama advisor Van Jones, who comes across as the most strident and unbending critic, somewhat absurdly pointing the finger at Presley for American cultural imperialism.
Is Elvis as America a stretch? Maybe, but Jarecki leaves room to critique his own metaphor (especially through The Wire creator David Simon, who busts his chops hard that he didn't take one of Elvis' American-made Cadillacs). Yet the fact the car is the epitome of English elegance works in his favor, as residents of New York and Mobile, Ala., crowd around it like a beautiful alien god – much as they did around Elvis himself.