Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Movie Review: The King

The King **** / *****
Directed by: Eugene Jarecki.
Written by: Eugene Jarecki and Christopher St. John.
Throughout The King, we will see dozens of people give their thoughts on Elvis – good, bad, indifferent, whatever they are, and then they’ll often give their thoughts on something else – poverty, crime, racism, the rise of Trump, the failure of the American dream and just about anything else. The King is that kind of documentary – a rambling one in which director Eugene Jarecki tries to basically make Elvis into a metaphor for America – and as one person says, on the eve of Trump’s election, if that’s true America is about to OD on the toilet. No one in the film agrees with each other, and yet, the one thing I suspect they could agree on is that there is not another figure in American history you could make a documentary like this about other than Elvis Presley.
The framing device of the movie has Jarecki travelling around America in one of Elvis’ old Rolls Royces, interviewing people who sit in the passenger seat of his car as he drives – or sometimes just inviting musicians to come into the car and play their music. Many of the people that will enter the car you will recognize – Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher, Emmylou Harris, David Simon, etc. – but some of them you won’t. He also does more formal sit-down interviews with others such as Van Jones, James Carville, old friends of Elvis’, and Chuck D, writer of the immortal line “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, Mother fuck him and John Wayne” (perhaps Wayne could be the subject of a doc like this, but even then I doubt it – he isn’t quite the figure he once was, while Presley still is, and young, dangerous Elvis had something that Wayne never had).
Throughout the documentary, you will hear a lot of stories about Presley – a basic biography of him growing up poor, signing with Sun Records, moving to RCA, joining the Army for two years (the only time he’d leave America), returning and signing a huge movie contract, the comeback special, Vegas, death, etc. You’ll see a lot of debates about him – did he simply steal black music, and make it popular, and then never do anything to help black people again. Why didn’t he do anything with the Civil Rights movement, why did he keep every opinion to himself? He could have helped, and he didn’t. Why not?
Jarekci will also go to the various cities Elvis was in during his life – from Tupelo, Mississippi to Nashville to New York, to Vegas – even that German town he was stationed in. He looks at the poverty, and the devastation in much of rural America that Elvis came from, and how it is, or isn’t, getting any better.
By design, The King is rambling and ramshackle. It bites off more than it, or any movie, could chew. It knows the analogy between Elvis and America isn’t perfect – and bringing in Trump and slavery and Jim Crow and Muhammad Ali and everything else it can think of, is straining. But I appreciated all of it – I appreciated this movie trying to find some sort of pattern in the madness. It is a big, messy, sprawling documentary that can barely contain Elvis and America – and perhaps that’s the only way to tell either of their stories.

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