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Film Reviews Review: Eugene Jarecki hits the road to understand Elvis – and America – in The King

Elvis Presley in the military.

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

  • The King
  • Directed by Eugene Jarecki
  • Starring Van Jones, Ethan Hawke, Chuck D, James Carville, Greil Marcus, Mike Myers, David Simon
  • Classification Not yet rated
  • 107 minutes

rating

They said you was high-classed, well that was just a lie – Leiber and Stoller’s Hound Dog

America has left the building, if it was ever there in the first place. That’s the curious notion of The King, a worthwhile road-film doc and lively political discussion on dashed dreams from the inquisitive Eugene Jarecki, twice a Grand Jury Prize-winner at Sundance (for 2012’s The House I Live In and 2005’s Why We Fight).

Here Jarecki drives in circles as he attempts to explain the rise and fall of Elvis Presley as analogous to the crumbling of the American Dream. A seemingly random collection of opining celebrities ride in Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce, a vehicle that, like the film itself, sometimes rattles and sometimes hums as it makes its way to the soul of a republic and a rock ‘n‘ roll icon. Provocative and at times unwieldy, The King is something of a stoned CNN Special Report on wheels.

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How does it end? Well, you know it ends: With Elvis bloated, opiated and constipated, and with a fat, divided America slumped on the toilet.

The King’s most intriguing talking head is Van Jones, the author and television news commentator who distinguishes himself as the film’s chief contrarian and the fly in Jarecki’s buttermilk.

“It’s an interesting country,” Jones says of America. “It inflicts pain on black people, denies it inflicts the pain, but benefits from the soulful cry that arises from the pain.”

He’s talking about blues, a music taken by the white man from African-Americans. Jones directly confronts director Jarecki, whom he sees as “desperate” to rescue Presley from the charge of cultural appropriation.

On the other side of the issue is rapper Chuck D, who believes “culture is culture” and meant to be shared. This is the same Chuck D who on the 1989 Public Enemy song Fight the Power bluntly rapped that Elvis was a “straight-up racist sucker” and no idol to him.

So, America’s relationship with Presley is complicated, and so is Jarecki’s pursuit – and we haven’t even addressed Ashton Kutcher’s philosophy on fame or musician John Hiatt’s on-camera sobbing yet.

The film’s journey begins where Presley began, in Tupelo, Miss. It’s a town of no opportunities now, even though its favourite son has been hailed as a classic rag-to-riches success story. Asked about the pursuit of happiness, a working-class white woman mentions peace, harmony, love and family. “And health,” adds a cigarette-puffing friend.

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Jarecki searches for one of the Presley family’s Tupelo homes. The African-Americans in town have no idea which street Elvis lived on. The South was segregated when Elvis was born; one man’s American Dream was another’s American Nightmare.

The ride continues to Memphis, to New York, to Hollywood – with a sidebar to Presley’s Army stint in Germany, where the fall of the King, it is suggested, began. Being a soldier is at turns tedious and terrifying – conditions, we are told, which can lead to drug abuse.

Presley’s days in uniform changed him, the film contends. Enlisting as a James Dean rebel, he came out as John Wayne establishment. Back in America in the 1960s, Presley, who revered black music, was no civil rights hero. He did go to Hollywood to make bad movies.

Long an intellectual pursuit, the mythologizing of Elvis has picked up steam of late. The recent HBO doc The Searcher is rich in its archival and ethno-musical content, but its tone is apologetic and its conceit (that Elvis was a soulful, spiritual seeker locked in a box not of his own making) is nonsense.

When it comes to dispelling the kind of myths put forward by The Searcher, actor Ethan Hawke is one The King’s more refreshing voices. Where musician Hiatt literally weeps for a “poor mama’s boy from Mississippi” who was trapped by fame and a manipulative manager, Hawke notes that at every turn Elvis “chose money” over all else, whether it was moving from a small record label to a slicker, bigger one or choosing films over music or sticking to Vegas rather than touring the world.

Where Hawke is casual and bright in his Rolls-Royce ruminations, fellow actor Kutcher is so ponderous and world-weary – “[People] reach a point in fame that is so large they actually have to be able to afford a kind of living to protect themselves from the very fame that they’ve created, or go away” – that you’re grateful that he himself has gone away.

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Jarecki picks up all sorts of celebrated people and thinkers – probably too many. I would have liked to hear more from Elvis’s Graceland cook and less from Alec Baldwin. And why is the car of choice a British-made Rolls-Royce and not a Cadillac, a symbol of the American Dream if there ever was one?

Elvis’s own voice in The King is a disembodied one, culled from old interviews. In the film’s prelude, we hear him in favour of “happiness” over worldly goods. Later, however, Presley wishes that everybody could have all the luxuries he had.

Elvis picked money over happiness, as did a racially divided America, where democracy became synonymous with capitalism, and where a dream to some was just a lie to others.

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