Movie review: ‘The King’ hardly the best
We need another documentary on Elvis about as much as we need one about the Kennedys and Camelot. Undaunted by that faint demand, Eugene Jarecki plugs on to regale us with “The King,” his so-so attempt to use Presley as a metaphor for a nation that was revolutionary in its youth, but grew fat on its many excesses.
It’s quite a stretch to use a long-dead American icon to shoulder the blame for the rise of Trumpism, but not in Jarecki’s jaundiced eyes. Using the heated 2016 presidential campaign as a backdrop, Jarecki — and his big-name producers, Steven Soderbergh, Errol Morris and Ethan Hawke — purchase the King’s 1963 Rolls Royce limousine, outfit it with cameras and mics and proceed to traverse the highways connecting the cities that shaped the Presley myth: Tupelo, Mississippi; Memphis, Nashville, New York, Detroit, Hollywood and Las Vegas.
Along for the ride is a who’s who of artists from the worlds of music, film and (yes, you James Carville) politics; all struggling to draw parallels between Elvis and our increasingly isolated nation. Some of these pontifications are compelling, like rapper Chuck D taking issue with Elvis being dubbed “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll” when Chuck Berry and Little Richard were equally deserving of the title. But most of these opines are obvious, if not rote. Like CNN’s Van Jones raising the age-old — but relevant — issue of Elvis appropriating black music then exacerbating that theft by ungratefully sitting out the civil rights movement.
A larger problem is the film’s concept. Jarecki abandons the backseat interview shtick almost as soon as it begins. Might that — as his movie shows — be due to the vintage Rolls constantly breaking down? And why a Rolls, as one observer queries, in a movie about America? Wouldn’t a Cadillac, Elvis’ favorite mode of transportation, be a better choice, particularly when making a stop at the rotted-out auto factories near Detroit?
Even the central concept of Elvis being a bedazzled representation of the fallacy of the American dream feels less like an exploration and more like a template for Jarecki to shape his film to fit a mold. What saves him is the music, be it samples from Elvis’ vast catalogue or contemporary acts like John Hiatt, Kat and Maggie and the amazing EmiSunshine, sounding all the world like a preteen Janis Joplin. All share an affinity for Presley and his influence on their careers, including an awareness of how fame and unrelenting manipulation by his Svengali, Colonel Tom Parker, were a catalyst for the drug habit that precipitated Elvis’ untimely death at age 42 in 1977.
If there’s an underlying theme — except for the music — it’s how racism has become part of Presley’s legacy; the irony being his immersion in African-American culture as a child and teenager. He loved frequenting the all-black clubs in Memphis that featured some of the greats playing the blues; and had to do it on the sly given the rules of Jim Crow. He also attended black churches, where the music became gospel during much of his Las Vegas years.
Don’t, however, get the idea that “The King” is a Presley put-down. Rather, it’s a big sympathetic valentine to a poor, undereducated Mississippi kid whose love of performing became a means to make a lot of people rich. The crux being that Elvis at no point had control over his own career. He was coerced at almost every step — mostly by Parker — into making choices that prioritized money over longevity. And almost every move was the wrong one, both musically and in his now laughable dip into Hollywood movies — only two or three worth the celluloid they’re printed on.
Hawke puts it best when he philosophizes that every wrong choice Elvis made was rooted in money, such as sacrificing creative control when he signed a movie contract simply because it was the most lucrative ever offered, and opting for the barrels full of cash in Vegas instead of going on the road and connecting with his fans in a more personal, intimate way. Hawke also blames the nearly two dozen shows Elvis performed each week in Sin City for contributing greatly to the King’s addiction to the stimulants he gulped like candy to maintain stamina.
Ignored, except for brief mentions of his beloved mother, Gladys, and wife, Priscilla — whom he met in Germany during his infamous two-year stint in the Army at the height of his career — Jarecki conspicuously glosses over Presley’s family life. Sure, he tells us Elvis’ dad served time for kiting checks, but what was their relationship like? Same for his marriage. And what about fatherhood? Apparently the crowded backseat of the Rolls left no room.
As is, “The King,” like its subject, is an incomplete work. What’s here is interesting and, for the most part, entertaining. But Jarecki always leaves you feeling a bit cheated, especially when it comes to proving his hypothesis about the parallels between Elvis and America, a country Presley loved, and at one time, wanted to serve by begging President Richard Nixon to appoint him — irony of all ironies — drug czar. If nothing else, that goal illustrates the King’s utter lack of self-awareness. And in many ways, that might have made for a more fascinating documentary. But like Elvis in his later years, what’s here is good, but hardly the best.
A documentary by Eugene Jarecki featuring Ethan Hawke, Dan Rather, Alec Baldwin, John Hiatt, Chuck D., Emmylou Harris, James Carville and EmiSunshine.