photo courtesy of Oscilloscope
Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary – The King – wants to ask questions with potentially devastating answers, but, fortunately, gets bogged down in its own devastatingly beautiful portrait of humanity.
The King, if you didn’t know, refers to Elvis Presley. But this is not just another biopic that you could find while browsing A&E or the History Channel. No, it is a portrait and description of Elvis by everyday Americans, some celebrities, and maybe one Canadian and a few Brits, just for good measure. It highlights his triumphs and vices, his rise, and his fall. The film follows Jarecki and his crew on a cross-country road trip in one of Elvis’s Rolls Royces starting in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born, and ending in Memphis, Tennessee, where he died. Country and blues musicians, actors, rappers, Elvis’s friends, ex-wife, colleagues, and fans muse about what he did, right and wrong. The film never tries to make a point about who Elvis was outside of all of the various subjects’ testimonies, except for one point: that Elvis’s rise and fall is a metaphor for the United States.
Throughout the film, non-diegetic soundbites of radio reports concerning the American education system or various economic woes compete with the emotional voice of Elvis Presley reflecting on his life. The same is true for whenever Jarecki asks people to reflect on Elvis Presley, and then say something about the state of America, but then asks for a comparison of the two. The comparison is apt because, as stated numerous times in the film, Elvis is the epitome of the American Dream: to come from nothing, and become something. Numerous times, subjects reflect on the hardships that they’ve faced, whether it’s a degree-holding individual working at an Elvis Presley museum or someone who has given up on looking for a job. It is these small portraits of individuals, comparing and contrasting themselves to Elvis Presley, that make the film what it is: a devastating portrait of humanity, in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their dreams.
photo courtesy of Oscilloscope
Elvis factors into this too, of course, because the film is, after all, about him. The movie, however, doesn’t have a lot of new things to say about Elvis himself, it still follows Elvis from Sean Phillips, to Colonel Tom Parker, to his time in the military, all the way to his comeback special and the infamous ’77 CBS Special: Elvis in Concert. The freshest contribution it gives, rather, is what people have to say about him. It is a well-known fact that Elvis was a cultural appropriator of black musicianship, but as David Simon states in the film: “the entire American experience is cultural appropriation”. Contrast that with Chuck D. of Public Enemy stating he believes “that culture is meant to be shared”. It is competing ideas like this that make the film so compelling, these open-ended questions of what is to be done with Elvis’s legacy, how we live through it, and how we reconcile it.
But open-ended questions don’t work so well with what seems to be Eugene Jarecki’s artistic objective: to paint Elvis as a metaphor for America. The questions regarding this are few and far between, with differing emphasis throughout the film. Put simply, it is not nearly as effective as just hearing people talk about Elvis. It is the pure emotion evoked from these conversations that make the film work, not the questions about American identity whose answers are left dangling by its own metaphorical string. The comparisons aren’t nonsensical, and they certainly follow a logical path, but the connection with it is not nearly as strong as the more human aspect of the documentary.
The King asks a range of questions with varying quality in its answers. From the start of the film, it is clear that its true object is America, but the numerous subjects explored in the film differ in effectiveness by the end. But it is still a fresh take on Elvis’s impact on contemporary life and culture, and dares to explore the feelings of a man who, even at the height of his fame, still felt lonely in the middle of a crowd.