The thesis of Eugene Jarecki’s documentary essay “The King” is pretty straightforward, and some would say equally simplistic: the life and death of Elvis Presley serves as a pretty good metaphor for the promise and decline of America. It’s a provocative argument, but even those disinclined to be persuaded by it can enjoy the mode through which Jarecki presents it.
That’s via a road trip in a vintage Rolls Royce that Presley owned. Jarecki and his crew drive—with occasional stops for needed repairs—through the places that marked the trajectory of the singer’s life, from his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, where he was discovered, to New York, where he made his mark on variety-show television, to Las Vegas, where he became a staple in his later years. Extensive found footage fills in the other major points in his career, like his stint in the army and his years churning out generally terrible movies.
Jarecki invites into the back seat at various points other musicians to sit where their idol once did. Some of them merely mumble a few words in awe, others break out into song—or both. These are agreeable shows of reverence to an icon.
They’re really tangential, however, to the film’s point, which is that the United States has entered an era of decline similar to the one Elvis suffered in the dreary latter part of his career, which had begun with such energy as he seemed to be the epitome of the fulfillment of the American Dream, the rise of a poor boy through grit (and some remarkably good fortune) to the height of superstardom. His breakout in a Memphis recording studio with Sam Phillips and Sun Records is compared to the realization of the possibilities implied in the foundational “pursuit of happiness” pledge that goes back to Jefferson (though attention is also directed to the question of to what degree his appropriation of black musical traditions represented a sort of cultural theft). And the frenzy that he soon created in the country is related to that notion as well.
But then the sinister figure of Colonel Tom Parker enters this Eden, and Presley’s career gets darker. His army service, during which drugs were introduced into his life, is treated as a turning point, and after his return to civilian life he was a changed person, driven by excesses of all kinds that led to his death in 1977 at 42. The collapse of the original promise of America’s experiment, which has led to the deplorable state into which our society has fallen in the age of Trump, is mirrored, Jarecki implies, in Presley’s decline.
That political point is emphasized in the fact that the Rolls Royce trip is occurring during the presidential campaign of 2016, and Jarecki fills the trip not only with sessions with musicians in the back seat, but with conversations with ordinary folk at the various stops, whose attitudes are hardly filled with hope about their own circumstances, or the country’s—as well as observations about Elvis and recent U.S. history from a host of commentators.
Some of these climb into the car with Jarecki and speak as they drive along—Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke among them. Others appear in talking-head interviews shot elsewhere—Van Jones, Dan Rather (whose scenes were shot on the observation deck of the Empire State Building), and Mike Myers (who offers what he describes as a Canadian perspective). Chuck D offers a sober but biting viewpoint; after all, it was he who famously sang that Elvis “never meant shit to me.” It turns out that doesn’t mean quite what you might think. There is further insight, musical and otherwise, from such figures as Greil Marcus, Luc Sante and David Simon.
Whether the collage of archival material, commentary, and interviews will persuade you that the overarching metaphor Jarecki draws holds water will be a matter of personal choice; one suspects that the political views you bring to the theatre with you will be a strong determinative factor.
But whether or not you are persuaded by its argument, you should find something in “The King” that will appeal to you, whether it be all the biographical material, the engaging musical performances, the reverential recollections—or, on the other hand, the socio-political analyses. Though it tends to be repetitive and overloaded, “The King” should hold your interest, whether it leaves you nodding in agreement or snorting in disapproval.