Directed by Eugene Jarecki (2017)
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Rosalie Kicks, Old Sport
Way before my love of Buster Keaton, Cary Grant and Bela Lugosi there was Elvis Presley. My fascination with The King began at a young age, due to my grandfather. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my grandparents during my formative years. They owned a farmer’s market, where I held my first job as a cashier at their produce stand. One of my most cherished memories from this time in my life was the Saturday morning drives with my grandfather.
If business was slow, unbeknownst to my grandmother, my grandfather and I would sneak away down the back steps and drive up the road for a secret breakfast. Enroute to the restaurant, we always listened to The King. Being with my grandfather was always special. Often, he would sing along with his favorite Elvis tunes which included impersonating the curled upper lip. Over time as my ears discovered more tunes, I grew fonder of other musicians from Elvis’ era such as: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. After my grandfather passed away, Elvis continued to hold a special place in my heart. His music was a way for me to keep the connection with my grandfather alive.
In the documentary The King, director Eugene Jarecki takes Elvis’ 1963 Rolls Royce out for a spin and embarks on a musical adventure across the United States. During the hour and forty-seven minutes, the viewer is taken on a road trip, accompanied by various guests that are picked up along the way. Shot from the back of the Rolls Royce, passengers are interviewed and share their memories, feelings, and sentiments about the pelvis swinging rock n’ roller. In addition to these discussions, some of the riders also provide musical entertainment. Interviewees range from Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Lana Del Rey, M. Ward, and Emmylou Harris. These car chats are interspliced with footage from Elvis’ career, old newsreels, and interviews, including Chuck D., Mike Myers, and Elvis’ former friend Jerry Schilling. It may be forty years after The King’s death, but his spirit seems to be alive and well for better and worse.
After viewing the documentary, it is clear to see the connection that Jarecki is attempting to make between Elvis’ career and the loss of the American dream. This was not the story I was anticipating. Before viewing the film, my expectation was that I would be witnessing people climbing in and out of the Rolls Royce, reminiscing about the “good old days”, the Elvis’ days.
As stated above, I am fond of Elvis, but also realize the problematic history of how he came to be. Elvis is not the founder of rock n’ roll. Instead, he was utilized as a way in which to market rock n’ roll to white people. This documentary does an excellent job of presenting this by including interviews with people of various backgrounds from all over the country. The most notable interviewee being Chuck D. of Public Enemy. His statements offer insight into the effect Elvis had on the African American community and the feeling of resentment that some had toward The King for being given credit for an art form he didn’t create.
Documentaries are always fascinating to me. Having made one myself, I know the amount of time and footage that is shot to craft your story. Unlike narrative filmmaking, in which you have a script, your blueprint to go by, documentary filmmaking is all shot based on an idea or concept. Probably one of the most interesting aspects of documentary filmmaking is that you initially set out to tell a particular story and by the time you finish the editing process a completely different story is found. At one point in The King, a crew member comments that he is not sure of the point of the film, and hypothesizes that it may have something to do with Elvis and the downfall of America. This stuck with me as I pondered the film afterwards. It made me wonder whether this was the filmmaker’s intention or not. Was the film really meant to be this timely and comment on things occurring in America today or did it just happen naturally?
For me, I feel the association is rather clear. Elvis was around during a period that is now looked back upon as the golden years of America, the high point. A span of time that is so obsessively regarded that our current president just ran an entire campaign on wanting to recreate this blessed age. It was a time when the American Dream was alive, at least for some people. What this film also pointedly shows is that it was the start of our decline. It was when America’s obsession with celebrity life, materialism and money truly took form. For the years in which Elvis’ career and the country was booming, many Americans were experiencing lives filled with hatred, segregation and suffering. Elvis may have experienced the highest level of notoriety, but he was also the first to take the biggest fall. This is more than just a documentary about Elvis Presley, it is the story of the United States.