July 30, 2018
I only knew that the film was about Elvis Presley, had read no reviews. it turned out to an ambitious, churning, probing, deep dive into Americana that gathers steam then rolls you over in the final minutes. I woke up at 3 AM the morning after seeing the film… still all shook up, headed for my computer. I needed to process what I’d just experienced, an enormous portrait of a man, a myth, a country.
From impossibly beautiful man to one impossibly bloated, the story of Elvis Presley is an allegory about the cultural history of America from the 1950s to today. “The King” has all the subtlety of car crash. It poses questions, it offers answers. Some are not pretty. It puts a serious hurt on the notion that if you work hard you can achieve what you want….aka The American Dream.
It’s poignant. It’s revelatory. It’s complicated. It digs into the taproot of the divide in America: race. At times, I squirmed in my seat as the dots were connected between race, music, commerce, and the myths and platitudes we tell ourselves to this day.
Twenty minutes into the film, I realize this is a documentary whose ambition is to connect the zeitgeist between the 1950s and America of 2017, forty years after Elvis dies at 42 of a heart attack caused by abuse of painkillers. This is no gauzy portrait encased in amber. As one reviewer comments, “We go from Graceland to Trumpland.”
How did Elvis happen? How did he become The King? Whose King? Why did we love him? Who were his people? What made him tick? How did he become packaged and merchandised to within an inch of his life? Why did he never take the reins and become himself? Did he ever comprehend his power and the possibility of using it for social or racial betterment? Was he simply the most successful cultural appropriator in history? (David Simon’s comment about that is probably as close as you can get to an answer).
Somewhere under the popular image was a country boy whose ambition, noted in archival footage, was to sing the music he loved. It all started in 1954 while 19 year-old Elvis was trying to make an impression on Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis.
After he sang some unimpressive country-ish popular songs, the demo tapes stop rolling. Elvis loosens up, probably to decompress, and begins singing with the unbuckled energy and style of the blues, gospel, and rhythm ‘n blues he’d been listening to on black music stations and in his neighborhood churches since he was a kid.
With irrepressible abandon, he begins to sing his version of Big Mama Thornton’s “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog”, a white boy covering a decidedly black influenced song with all the unbound juice it called for. Philips runs in from his office and tells Elvis to keep singing. He had finally found what he’d been looking for. A white kid whose sound could bring the music of black America to a wider audience. The legend was born.
The film’s brilliant conceit is Elvis’s 1963 Rolls Royce. Director and co-writer Jarecki gathers a collection of celebrities, including Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, James Carville, Mike Myers to sit in that car and paint a multi dimensional, occasionally contrarian portrait of The King, much like the country he ruled (and that ruled him).
Jerecki tricks out that dream car with state of the art audio and video equipment and takes it on a road trip from Memphis to New York to Las Vegas and down the rural lanes of Tupelo, Mississippi. The real time segments shot in the Rolls Royce are quilted with archived black and white and color footage that contrasts reality with myth. That car is a rolling sound stage. It feels like part of the cast. Its occasional breakdowns may be the exotic car’s commentary on its owner’s life.
Rapper Chuck D and Van Jones speak the truths about race and culture I reckon were true. They sting. The most jarring observations about America are made by a truck driver and several residents of Tupelo, Mississippi, the King’s sleepy hometown.
One minute, people like me who grew up when Elvis turned the country upside down, relive the liberating youthful moments he changed our worlds. The next moment, in news clips of the time, we feel extraordinary pain to confront an America that, like Camelot, was never what we believed it was.
A giant qualifier: That “we” is a huge chunk of white men and women of a certain age. The larger lens includes comments from today’s black community and a younger generation that never saw the arc of popular American music change with the comet named Elvis. The conversation about cultural appropriation? Relevant then, relevant now.
The film is brutally honest and complex. Director Jarecki shines light on history found not in books but in newspaper accounts around the country. Black and white photos of lynched black men with a bunch of white people standing around are a bone chilling collision between race, music, history and culture.
The 1 hour 47 minute film’s clips weave Elvis's early career, first recordings 1953-1956, his commercial breakout 1956 –1958, his mother’s death and military service 1958-1960, film career 1960-1967, his comeback to the stage 1968-1973, with archival footage and hit you upside the head contemporary comments by those passengers rolling along in that Rolls Royce.
“There are three kings, BB King, Elvis, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” says one commentator connecting the dots as we see vintage footage of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis and hear the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering the “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech in April 1968.
Jarecki exposes the self-promoting role Colonel Parker took in commanding Elvis’s career choices before Presley’s ignominious self-destruction in Las Vegas. Elvis doesn’t get off the hook, choosing the most lucrative next step for his career, no matter what the cost to his soul or his art.
How is Jarecki going to end this, I wonder as the film hits 140 minutes. The footage of Elvis five minutes before the film ends (spoiler alert here) will keep you transfixed in your seat long after the credits roll. Jarecki lets you draw your own conclusions.
This film is a reality check. Jarecki takes us on a trip showing us how we got here. The question we're left with...where do we go from here.
Elvis Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977)