I try to keep President Trump out of film reviews, I really do. But in documentaries, especially the ones that purport to explore the Way We Live Now, 45’s presence is unavoidable.
Eugene Jarecki’s The King is ostensibly a doc about the legacy of Elvis Presley, but it’s also an American travelogue circa 2016, and it can’t help but catalog the fissures of the year’s presidential campaign. Driving across the fruited plane in Presley’s refurbished 1963 Rolls-Royce, on a route mirroring the King’s own biography — from Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., through New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas — Jarecki picks up a dozen or so celebrities, like some Uber driver to the stars.
Among them is a prickly Alec Baldwin, who, from his backseat in the Rolls, takes an informal poll of presidential preference from a cluster of pedestrians.The results are heartening — Clinton gets the loudest support — and Baldwin relaxes for a moment. He looks straight at Jarecki, and us, and prognosticates with sage confidence: “Trump’s not going to win,” in the same tone that he might have predicted, “it’s not going to rain frogs.”
Trump haunts this movie’s periphery, resurfacing every now and then like a lingering fart. While in New York, Jarecki sits at a table in a diner, among people of color, as they eat a meal and comment on presidential debate highlights. “If Elvis is your metaphor, we’re about to OD,” one observer says. “If someone can just buy a candidacy, we’re on the brink of the destruction of our democracy.”
Why so much Trump in an Elvis movie? It could be that Jarecki simply cannot help but wade into the zeitgeist, particularly when the zeitgeist is so troubling. He has always been a political filmmaker, exploring the war crimes of an ex-secretary of state in The Trials of Henry Kissinger, and the military-industrial complex in Why We Fight. But the justification for political commentary is more nebulous this time around, and may repel viewers who just want an informative biography on a complicated cultural icon, a la Kevin MacDonald’s recent, unfussy documentary about Whitney Houston.
That sort of movie exists within The King, like the innermost egg in a set of nesting dolls. Through stock footage, photographs and audio excerpts of Presley, along with interviews with the entertainer’s friends and biographers, the viewer gets a robust sense of Presley’s life and influence, from his penurious childhood through his rise to fame and fortune in Memphis and Nashville, his curious exile in Hollywood and his depressing Vegas decline.
But for Jarecki, this is far from the linear path of a conventional doc. Like Presley’s legacy itself, it’s filled with crooked turns and blown fuses. The King is stylistically, temporally scattershot from the very beginning, and when the Rolls-Royce breaks down on the highway mid-film, the metaphor for Presley, and for America, is so appropriate you’d think Jarecki planned it. With the Rolls in tow, Jarecki takes the opportunity to ask a crew member, “What do you think I’m doing with this movie?,” to which his colleague astutely responds, “I’m not sure you know what you’re doing.”
Sometimes he’ll stray from Elvis for minutes at a time, bombarding us instead with curated audiovisual collages from political, cultural and cinematic history, and meditations on the civil rights movement, income inequality and American imperialism, with interviewees like Van Jones, Chuck D. and Griel Marcus happy to contribute memorable soundbites. (Jones: “The American dream was always someone’s fantasy, and someone else’s nightmare.”)
Jarecki picks up musicians only tangentially connected to Presley — The Handsome Family, John Hiatt, M. Ward — and invites them to play stripped-down tunes in the backseat. He lets Ashton Kutcher drive the Rolls while the actor meditates on the pitfalls of fame. He allows James Carville introduce him to the perfect po’boy. He chauffeurs a genial Ethan Hawke, an unexpected expert on Presley, to Sun Records, to catch up with the progeny of Sam Phillips, the influential producer who broke Elvis to the world.
Jarecki devotes a logical amount of screen time to Presley’s controversial appropriation of black music, but he also sits down randomly with Mike Myers to discuss how a Canadian assesses the U.S. economic and political model. Cue a diversionary cutaway to Wayne’s World.
Watching The King can feel like stepping into the mind of a mathematician with ADD. It’s messy, but it’s also imbued with a mad genius. I’m not sure if Jarecki’s grand vision to link the rise and decline of Elvis with the rise and decline of America is successful — or that the King “died for capitalism,” in one speaker’s dubious flourish.
But the constituent parts do add up to a sweeping cultural critique, and an unpretty picture of the state of things. Traversing the country at a time when the coronation of Clinton seemed inevitable, the director could not have known how ominous the storm clouds of 2016 were. But hindsight blackens the movie’s charged atmosphere.
I won’t soon forget the image of Carville, in between bites, letting the confident façade of the establishment fall away, if only for a moment, in diction he couldn’t vocalize on CNN: “If the Democrats lose, we are so f**ked, you have no idea.” Now we do.
THE KING. Director: Eugene Jarecki; Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Living Room Theaters at FAU, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Lake Worth Playhouse and the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables