Just imagine the poor Elvis Presley fan settling in to watch “The King,” which is finally hitting theaters fifty years after his 1968 comeback special and a year after debuting at Cannes. She expects the usual: some celebratory interviews, the odd bit of backstage gossip, and some ripping concert footage of her beloved musical icon — much like David Bowie fans anticipated with HBO’s “The Last Five Years.” “The King” has some of that, of course. But as a bonus, she also gets Van Jones declaring America is “an empire in decline,” scathing critiques of Elvis’ race-blindness, random musicians she’s probably never heard of jamming on Elvis tunes, and a running theme that not so subtly compares the boy from Tupelo’s rise and decline to the election of Donald Trump.
Director Eugene Jarecki isn’t the first artist to turn a pop culture icon into a metaphor for America — there are whole phalanxes of culture critics who make a living doing just that. But usually, those metaphors, while complicated, are ultimately positive. By the time Jarecki is done with Elvis, the lanky, and projects-raised, rockabilly kid just one generation removed from sharecroppers has been cast as everything from an opportunist and grasping capitalist to addled addict to just plain sucker. If he ever was the King, the movie suggests, it’s long past time to retire the crown.
Jarecki doesn’t start off lambasting his subject. The early parts of “The King” follow much of the standard bio-doc format. We see Elvis’ restored birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, the black church where he heard gospel music, stretches of Memphis and Nashville where he honed his craft, Sun Studios where he attracted the attention of Sam Phillips, the record executive looking for a white performer who could sell black music to a white audience, and New York and Las Vegas, where he learned how to be a world-conquering multi-industry star. The arc is mostly known, from skinny rebel sex symbol to army draftee, enthusiastic if unskilled movie star, and late-period decline into bloat and addiction. What gives Jarecki’s telling of Elvis’ story such bite is the acidic contempt the movie has for his self-imprisoning eagerness to sell out (Greil Marcus notes that he essentially became “an employee of his own factory”) and its yoking of Elvis’ mercenary carnival opportunism to the empty flash of mass-media American consumerism.
Structurally, “The King” is a flashy, but ungainly, high-concept vehicle that keeps breaking down, much like Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce which Jarecki and his crew drive around the country as a rolling set to interview the random gaggle of celebrities who come along for the ride and opine about the music icon. James Carville breaks down the impact of Elvis setting off the rock and roll bomb on national television: “The next day there was Elvis … America never tasted the same.” Ethan Hawke talks about the King’s career-shaping mentors. Chuck D breaks down the “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me,” line from “Fight the Power.” Jarecki also jams musicians like John Hiatt, M. Ward, and some kids from the Stax Music Academy into the back seat like some homage to Davis Guggenheim’s “It Might Get Loud” and has them strum and sing away. As a framing device, all this attracts more attention than it’s worth (having Ashton Kutcher at the wheel discussing the pitfalls of celebrity was perhaps not the best use of screentime) and frequently derails the movie whenever it starts to pick up a head of steam.
Jarecki openly acknowledges the movie’s thematic confusion, which could well have been jumbled by seeming to have been at least partially filmed during the 2016 election (which is why Alec Baldwin pronounces “Trump is not going to win”). Van Jones asks sharply why the filmmaker seems so “desperate to rescue” the legacy of a maybe over-studied icon. Jarecki wonders aloud to one of his crew members about what kind of movie he’s making (the guy isn’t sure). In one great off-the-cuff moment, while Jarecki futzes in the car on a Baltimore street, “The Wire” creator David Simon sits on a nearby stoop strumming a guitar and proclaims the Rolls-Royce a “bad metaphor;” for him, one of Elvis’ Cadillacs would have made a stronger point.
As a director, Eugene Jarecki seems constitutionally unable to avoid talking about the state of the nation. This is not a bad thing when it leads to great, though also overextended, documentaries like “The House I Live In” and “Why We Fight.” That impulse leads him to overreach at times in “The King.” It’s one thing to link Elvis to the long American tradition of capitalism consuming the creative impulse (“at every turn,” an increasingly agitated Hawke states, “Elvis chose money”) and cast him in his later years as the dead punchline for a bad joke about the price of fame. It’s quite another to end everything in a flurried montage of Joker Americana, with Katrina, the O.J. trial, and the Iraq War flashing by while Elvis yowls through “Unchained Melody.”
So, again, pity the Elvis fan watching “The King” who was not looking for a critique of late-capitalist American decline. Or don’t pity her. After all, she may have voted for Trump. [B+]