Two-time Sundance Grand Jury winner Eugene Jarecki is known for his political documentaries. In the past, the filmmaker has tackled America’s obsession, if not necessity, at going to war and the country’s overcrowded prisons filled with non-violent offenders in an effort to curb the war on drugs.
His latest project may prove to be his most ambitious as Jarecki takes Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V on a road trip to document the rise and fall of the “king of rock and roll” whose life, like the car, serve as metaphors for what’s great and what’s wrong with this country.
Elvis had an affinity for cars, most notably the Cadillac so while it would seem more fitting for Jarecki to traverse the countryside in one of the King’s caddies, the Rolls Royce is a better representation of today’s America which has become a country focused on the top 1% led by Donald Trump, the wealthiest person to ever assume the presidency. Singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris remarks “I thought he only drove American cars,” she is one of the many musicians and celebrities who make cameos in the documentary there’s even Mike Meyers offering up the Canadian perspective on Elvis. It would have been great to see Meyers pull up to the Rolls and ask for some Grey Poupon mustard as a parody of 1992’s “Wayne’s World.”
Elvis used metaphors to make a living (“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”) so it’s ironic that the entertainer's life has come to personify the country’s current trajectory. Are we headed for the same fate? America grew from nothing into a land of dreamers where anything is possible. Elvis was one of those dreamers who like America was most prosperous in the 50’s. He achieved wealth and fame only to have it all come to a grinding halt while down in the dumps on a toilet. Many Americans on both sides of the spectrum believe our country is at its lowest point, in fact, some have even incorporated the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Jarecki’s documentary couldn’t be more timely as rapper Immortal Technique observes "we're about to O.D."
“The King” definitely services the Elvis fans as Jarecki traces the singer’s life from his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi to his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee. Along the way, the Rolls makes its way through Nashville, New York, and the city that has come to represent all things Elvis, Las Vegas. Before the film gets to Sin City the camera is focused on the poverty-stricken residents of Tupelo who feel like the American dream and their city has gone to Hell. When Jarecki interviews everyday people he gives the documentary credibility as he attempts to capture the pulse of the nation.
The list of celebrity cameos includes Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, Patricia Gaines, James Carville, and Ashton Kutcher but it’s the musicians who appear in the doc performing in the back seat of the Rolls that make this road trip so enjoyable. From an emotional John Hiatt singing “Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” to the Stax Music Academy All-Stars who deliver a soulful rendition of “Chain of Fools,” to the 13-yr old prodigy from Tennessee, EmiSunshine who belts out a stirring rendition of “Danny Ray.”
Chuck D frontman for hip-hop group Public Enemy doesn’t perform in the documentary but he does offer insight to the lyrics from their iconic anthem “Fight the Power” that include the lines “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant s--t to me, you see straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain, mother f--k him and John Wayne.” The musician is quoted as saying he took offense to Elvis being labeled “The King” because he was no more a king than Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry.
The documentary points out how Elvis took black music and repackaged it for White America that’s not the problem according to Chuck D, “culture is to be shared” but others like news commentator Van Jones point out how Elvis never did anything to help out the black community to show his support for civil rights at a time when other white celebrities like Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and Tony Curtis marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jarecki’s documentary is a fascinating look at the legacy left behind by one of the world’s greatest entertainers who rose to fame in one of the greatest countries in the world. “The King” explores how Elvis represents America as we take a view of our nation from the driver’s seat of 1963 Rolls Royce. Ingenious.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing at the Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills (Austin)