The statement most citizens of America think of when considering the exceptionalism inherent in their way of life is Thomas Jefferson’s inclusion within the Declaration of Independence that all of America’s citizens are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. More than just a statement on a government document, it’s a point-of-view that claimed before the world that no monarchy would control the citizens of this new country. Since 1776, each new generation of American citizens grows up believing in this ideal as an unalienable right owed to them for no other reason than having been born in America. But with only ourselves to rely upon for governance, a shift away from democracy toward capitalism became inevitable as we prized that dream of happiness and its equation with avarice.
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki (Reagan) set about exploring the life of beloved entertainer Elvis Presley and the seeming decline of America that runs parallel to his demise. Though Jarecki presents The King as a road movie, a touring show where cameras installed within Elvis’s Rolls capture the words and performances of the people that go for a ride within it, The King is more a scathing look at Elvis as a marketing tool and the populace who consumed him.
Without question, Elvis Presley was the type of performer that moved audiences around the world with his voice and his style. Stories of his life aren’t particularly unique as his death left an enormous chasm in many of the lives who longed to know more about the man they’d only heard on the radio, seen on the silver screen, or read about in the papers. With this in mind, Jarecki’s film approaches the life of Elvis by exploring the influences of his life both musically and emotionally, all while touring the country in Elvis’s own 1963 Rolls Royce, a vehicle prized for its European luxury despite its inability to make it through the documentary without multiple repair stops. This last fact is perhaps the most easily ignored amid all the discussions and characterizations, but it’s also the most important comparison between who Elvis became and America – the notion that looking good is better than actually being good.
With cameras installed throughout the vehicle, Jarecki captures performances and discussions with all manner of passengers. Sometimes it’s a literal performance and discussion while, merely through the act of framing, Jarecki tells his own story. For instance, some of the interviewees sit in the front along with Jarecki as he drives, while others ride in the back soaking in the emotional history of the car. Students from the Stax Music Academy in Memphis cram into the back of the Rolls to perform a song – a showcase of the future talent to come from the town that gave Elvis his start – whereas singer/songwriter John Hiatt immediately bursts into tears upon sitting down, alone, in the back. Actor Ethan Hawke seems to spend the most time with Jarecki on the journey, regaling Jarecki and the audience with tales of Elvis’s glory and fall, all while sitting in the passenger seat. Though it seems natural, at first, for Hawke to ride shotgun with Jarecki, the fact that so many riders elect to ride in back makes Hawke a direct standout, ensuring his words make a greater impact. Hawke isn’t a devotee of the House of Presley; rather, he stands outside of it, both in awe of the man and possessing frustrated exasperation for the choices in Elvis made during his life. However, it’s the combined notions from renowned singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris and actor Ashton Kutcher that may hit the hardest for some in the audience. From the backseat, Harris acknowledges that Elvis had no mentors, that entertainers like him were unheard of, success never so large in scale, and that he had no history to guide him except to carry forward. Kutcher, from the driver’ seat, adds to this by suggesting that Elvis became an entertainer because he loved doing it, yet may have created a vicious cycle in which the idea of the entertainer became larger than the man, thereby forcing the man to forgo the needs of himself to maintain the legend. It’s in these moments where The King reveals itself to be less of a documentary tracking the history of a man and more as an exposé of society’s desire for glory despite the detriment to others.
The story flows from one significant moment to another without diving into popular theories or details, instead keeping the focus on the choices made that got Elvis to the stage and the choices that kept him there. So what does all of this, the story of Elvis, have to do with America? Jarecki points the audience toward America’s history of subjugation, segregation, and consumerism. Before Elvis signed with Sun Records, a defining moment in his career, studio owner Sam Phillips had tried to market the music of African American artists with no luck. So when Elvis walks in, a white man who also loved the music Phillips was trying to market and who had the talent to play it, Phillips jumped at the chance to create a crossover sensation. Though it’s more up to the individual to determine where Elvis’s music falls between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, Elvis was continually silent during the largest moments of the civil rights movement. A community that needed him, received zero support from an artist whose influence was second to none as he elected to remain an entertainer, never making his political views public. This is a great way to sell records, movie tickets, and merchandise; however, Jarecki uses various newsreels, interview soundbites, and other works of Elvis himself to infer that success without giving back, success sought as a means to maintain success, is empty. It’s particularly easy to make the inference that Jarecki believes Elvis’s fanbase equally responsible for the demise of the icon.
Despite his initial reception, Elvis is a conservative and liberal darling in popular culture. Putting his story – the rise and fall of a man who became trapped by the myth of Elvis – against the myth of America is powerfully poignant, inciting great sadness and rage from within its audience. He’s a man of the people, but also something bigger, grander, and somehow made precious. The same is said about the United States of America, a country built upon legends and whose history also struggles under the weight of scrutiny. Jarecki’s The King doesn’t try to hide its true intent, nor does its title merely refer to Elvis – the King of Rock n ‘Roll – for it’s a story of two kings, both mythological and both being destroyed by their legends.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.