First thing’s first, I must apologize for the lateness of this review. I saw this movie last Saturday, and sadly life has gotten in the way in myriad fashions over the last five days. I endeavor to post reviews within 24-48 hours of seeing a film, but I’ve had to put this off for a while for reasons I won’t get into. Sometimes stuff has to be put on the back burner. Nothing’s wrong, this one just got delayed. Anyway, let’s move on.
During the 2016 election, director Eugene Jarecki and producer Christopher St. John drove across the country in a 1963 Rolls-Royce once owned by the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Along the way, they explored Elvis’ life, from his birth in Tupelo, Mississippi to Las Vegas and back again. They also included several passengers, from common folk to celebrities, all with perspectives on Presley, and how his life story serves as an allegory for America itself.
Thus is the framing device for The King, an acclaimed documentary that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year, before making its American debut at Sundance this year. It is now in limited release, and is certainly worth seeing. My issue with the film, which stops it from being among the truly great docs of the year, is that the metaphor becomes forced and muddied at points, as if Jarecki and St. John were trying to rig a narrative rather than just telling an unfiltered story.
The best part of the film, by far, is the featuring of passengers taken around in the car. Some of them are friends and associates of Elvis during his youth and career. Others are high-profile celebrity fans, like Ethan Hawke and Alec Baldwin. Still others are musicians who in no doubt were influenced by Elvis’ artistry, from old blues men to gospel choirs, to a 13-year-old girl with the most shockingly unique blues voice I’ve ever heard. Her name is Emi Sunshine and she performs with her band, The Rain, which composes her father and older brothers. Seriously, if you’ve never heard of her (which I hadn’t going in), the film is worth seeing just for her vocal cords.
All of the passengers offer either perspective or performance, and almost to a man all of them express awe about just being in a Rolls. There’s a beautiful spectrum of experience with the car, from people wondering why Jarecki’s using the Rolls rather than one of Presley’s Cadillacs, to musings on celebrity culture in general, to general history lessons. On more than one occasion, the car breaks down, which aids the metaphor of our larger society, but it also demonstrates the core issue. While the car is being towed, the truck driver (one of the cameramen, if memory serves), bluntly asks Jarecki where he thinks this film is going, and if he is even trying to form a thesis.
There are fits and spurts of a grand comparison between Elvis’ life and the path America has taken to get to Donald Trump as President. It’s an interesting theory, and if the allegory holds, then we’re in a really bad place. As one Memphis restaurant goer notes while watching a Trump rally on TV: “If Elvis is a metaphor for America, then we’re about to have a heart attack on the toilet.”
The problem with that line is that it focuses too much on the present rather than the past. As the film demonstrates, Elvis had very humble beginnings, living in Tupelo (which residents claim is only known at all today because Elvis was from there) to very poor, private parents, before moving to Memphis and discovering music and the liberating feeling of it.
That’s not how America started. Our beginnings were not humble. There’s pride to be had, certainly, but America began as a nation of colonialists and settlers, who moved away from Europe so they could enforce their particular brand of religious belief on the natives and/or kill them. And then when the nation fought for independence, it wasn’t because it had gotten, “a taste of freedom,” it was because they were being persecuted by the colonial powers which ruled them, and they wanted self-governance.
Now, when you get to modern day America, the comparison is a bit more fitting. You have bombast, celebrity culture, and aggrieved minorities. In several poignant interviews (noticeably NOT in the Rolls), you have dissenting opinions from CNN anchor Van Jones and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who famously rapped about his disdain for Elvis in the hit song, “Fight the Power.” Now, I don’t know enough about Elvis to say whether he was racist or not, but he did get rich by performing songs that were first recorded and intended for black singers. Chuck even notes that despite his misgivings, he respects the business model from Sun Records that basically said, “We need a white face to make this black music acceptable to the country.”
Does that excuse cultural appropriation? Is it even fair to call it appropriation, as many of the songs were written by white Jewish men? I can’t say. But where I think the hypothesis falls apart is that these concerns come from essentially token minorities, and are only entertained as a momentary distraction to the overall narrative. In a way, that tracks with American history. I’m just not sure it tracks with who Elvis was as a person, because the film doesn’t really explore that angle in this instance, other than to point out that Elvis eschewed opining on racial matters as a general rule at the height of the civil rights era.
And of course, if we’re comparing Elvis’ America to Trump’s America, you already have a flawed starting point. Elvis came from nothing and worked his way to the top, taking advantage of every opportunity he was given. Whether you like him or not, Trump was born rich and inherited wealth, and had tons of connections to start his career, never really facing any obstacles to his own fortune. That’s just a fact.
Where the metaphor works, as I said, is in modern times, particularly the present. Ethan Hawke makes an interesting point that money was the motivating factor in Presley’s career. He left Sun for a better record deal. He did more than 30 movies – many of which were mediocre at best – because of the money, and so on. Similarly, America since the Depression has been about the accumulation of wealth, even when it leads to destructive tendencies, including the housing bubble and various stock market crashes.
It’s almost insightful on the surface, but again, it’s a bit of a stretch. Because when it came to Elvis, he took the path that led to more money, and he engaged in self-destructive activities, particularly pills. But there’s only a correlation in that instance, not a demonstrated causation. Similarly, the landed wealthy class in America seeks more wealth, and as a byproduct, the public at large suffers from reckless actions in that vein. But the wealthy themselves don’t suffer. The actions are only considered self-destructive in the grander context of the country at large, but even then, the pain rarely touches the perpetrators, whereas Elvis personally suffered and died. Just because you feature rapper Immortal Technique performing “Rich Man’s World (1%)” doesn’t mean Elvis and Trump are cut from the same cloth.
Again, it all comes back to the forced allegory. If this film were just a history lesson about Elvis and his influence on music – for better or worse – this would have been an outstanding documentary. Instead, Jarecki and St. John seemingly sought to shoehorn a grander metaphor about how “The King” is comparable to the imperialism of America and its roots, as well as the authoritarian leader who now runs the country. It’s an issue worth exploring, but I don’t think there’s enough there in this film to truly drive home the central thesis. Perhaps if this had been filmed during the current administration rather than just the campaign, there might be more meat here, but given the limited sample size, there’s not enough evidence to link to the larger point.
Still, as I said, this is worth seeing, because there’s some beautiful cinematography, the interviews from the swath of subjects in the Rolls-Royce are intriguing at the minimum, and of course, there’s just beautiful music to be had, from rock to hip hop to blues. And seriously, check out Emi Sunshine and the Rain.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Elvis Presley song? Does your lip unconsciously curl whenever you see him on screen? Let me know!