What can Elvis Presley tell us about modern America? Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The King thinks he can tell us…something. It’s not clear precisely what. At one point the director actually asks a tow truck driver what he thinks he’s doing with this movie. It’s not an exchange which inspires confidence. Would you trust someone who claimed to have all the answers about how they got into this sorry mess, though?
In The King, the director of The House I Live In and Why We Fight tools around in the musical legend’s vintage Rolls, stopping off at landmarks including Elvis’s childhood home and the original Sun studios. As he does, he picks up a succession of talking heads to wax lyrical on his subject in the back seat.
Ethan Hawke gives us a potted history of Presley’s early days. The Wire creator David Simon talks about the US and its grand history of cultural appropriation. Up-and-coming musicians play snatches of Elvis’s songs. Alec Baldwin’s there for some reason. There are also sequences where Jarecki turns the camera on the deprivation of rust belt America, juxtaposing the rhinestone-encrusted glamour of The King with the barren landscapes of those who didn’t escape to fortune and fame.
Apparently Jarecki was already filming the documentary when the 2016 Presidential Election took place. In case that context wasn’t fairly obvious from the setting, the soundtrack is frequently suffocated by snatches of news and talk radio discussing the divided nation, the 1%, and the rise of Trump. Like everyone, the director appears to have been knocked for six by this unexpected development, and has since struggled to regain a sense of equilibrium.
While not as provocative as his previous documenatries, Jarecki does allow for a significant amount of dissent from his interviewees. Chuck D discusses his line about Elvis from classic Public Enemy cut “Fight The Power.” Immortal Technique questions the myth of America as openly welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” as the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty claims. At one point, Jarecki’s “need” to absolve Presley of charges of cultural appropriation is directly challenged by one of his subjects.
Unfortunately The King never quite successfully answers that question, nor does it satisfyingly bring together the threads of Elvis’s rise and fall with the current state of his home country. The hope was presumably that one would provide a compass for the other, and talking about Presley certainly provides a jumping off point for discussions of celebrity culture, the Civil Rights struggle, wealth inequality and American Imperialism. Jarecki is clearly wrestling the state of things, but he doesn’t appear to have come to any compelling conclusions.