The King Review
Eugene Jarecki's dense documentary, The King, uses the career of Elvis Presley as a metaphor for the rise and fall of the American empire, packing a lot areas of discussion into its near two hour runtime. It is an attempt to examine the state of the country 41 years after the singer overdosed, and as rapper Immortal Technique suggests to Jarecki midway through the film, “If you’re using Elvis as a metaphor then we’re about to OD as a country.”
We are taken on a road trip through Memphis, New York and Las Vegas (key locations in the Elvis’ career) in his 1963 Rolls Royce Phantom V discussing the value of the American Dream today with a variety of musicians, actors and writers including Chuck D, Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Lana Del Rey, Ashton Kutcher and David Simon. At the same time, we follow the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s career arc from poor Mississippi boy to a bloated mess on the verge of self-destruction.
Jarecki’s film was shot the year before the last presidential election so thankfully we aren't subjected to another lazy Trump hit job, with only a handful of mentions given to the clickbait President. This is more of an attempt to understand what has occurred in the past four decades to lead up to this point, implying the country is currently an overweight Elvis worn down by excess with its best years some way behind it.
One-by-one people get in and out of the car, chewing the fat about politics, culture and Elvis (Ethan Hawke is the most animated of all about his career) while archived footage of the singer stitches these segments together. The Rose Royce unexpectedly breaks down on a few occasions which adds to the idea of a country coughing and spluttering its way towards a final dead end location.
About halfway through Jarecki comments that he doesn’t know where this project is going and that is reflected in its lack of focus which raises a lot of interesting cultural points of discussion without pursuing them towards any real logical point. One such argument asks if Elvis was simply a cultural appropriator who stole a music originally created by black musicians, which author Van Jones firmly believes to be true. Or was it simply a smart business move by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (the man who launched Presley’s career), a side which Chuck D surprisingly places himself on?
Quite why Jarecki chose to include so many well-known faces as part of his theory is mystifying and smarter quality control could’ve turned The King into a leaner and more focused documentary. Mostly they feel like fillers contributing little to the conversation and the brief bursts of music are just as easily forgotten. The subject would’ve benefited by hearing from some of the more cogent minds invited to offer their opinion, especially the likes of David Simon (writer of The Wire) who usually gives an insightful and intelligent perspective.
Eventually the narrative runs out of steam as it nears the end of Elvis’ career with comparisons to America bending backwards in order to fit in. Jarecki’s honesty about the film's lack of direction tempers this a little so it becomes more of an investigation in the making, rather than a fully formed argument. There is so much to cover even two hours isn’t enough to give justice to each subject, but for a country with such a sprawling and complicated history maybe that is all it ever could achieve in this format.