In The King, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki offers Elvis Presley as a symbol of America’s inglorious history and tarnished dreams, informing the singer’s meteoric rise and fall with contemporary urgency. The documentary has a little bit of everything: testimonials to both the greatness and ignobility of Presley’s career; rapid-fire accounts of significant cultural quakes in recent American history; and poignantly shambling roadside idylls with musicians and other celebrities as they ride with Jarecki in Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom. The King has a simultaneously blunt and elusive quality that fits its true subject: the merging of politics and pop culture.
Jarecki visits Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee—where Presley was respectively born and came of age—and reminds the audience of well-known aspects of Presley’s legend. Presley grew up rough, and become one of the most famous people on the planet—an icon of almost religious power who’s still being bent to accommodate people’s ideas about the country who created him. His was a true rags-to-riches story, a narrative that ran roughly parallel to America’s postwar boom and that continues to embody the self-actualization that’s associated with the notion of the American dream. Presley’s success, like that of many white Americans after WWII, was dependent on multiple strains of subjugation, from the colonial perversions of the government and music industry to the virulent racism that prevented black artists from living off of the sort of songs that made Presley a star.
The King is alive to the disturbing implications of Presley’s story without turning into a “woke” screed that ignores the transcendence that’s evident in his best and even worst songs. Presley was a soulful appropriator who found a sense of belonging in the blues—an idea that Jarecki dramatizes when he visits the Stax Music Academy in Memphis and films a talented cast of black musicians as they sing “Chain of Fools” in the Rolls. Stax is juxtaposed with Memphis churches, as both were formative influences on a downtrodden boy estranged from his society. In this context, one can understand how Presley came to sing a song as astonishingly misconceived as “In the Ghetto”—kitsch that’s powerful for his sheer willfulness of feeling.
On the other hand, Chuck D of Public Enemy, who had choice and brilliant words for Presley’s reputation in “Fight the Power,” wonders why Presley gets to be “king” when Little Richard and Chuck Berry and countless others came first and displayed greater musical virtuosity—a valid question that cuts to the heart of Presley’s reputation as a cultural fraud. The Wire creator David Simon later reminds us that Presley also borrowed from many white artists, and Chuck D reappears to admit that appropriation is a bedrock transaction of culture. Former White House advisor and CNN contributor Van Jones, who’s now president of the justice reform initiative Rebuild the Dream, serves as The King’s most urgent voice of conscience, describing America as “an interesting country. It inflicts pain on black people, denies it inflicts the pain, but then benefits from the soulful cry that arises from the pain.”
Jarecki doesn’t offer an easy answer to the Faustian bargain of pop culture, instead reveling in its disreputable energy as a found critique. Tellingly, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is one of many films quoted by The King, as both works understand pop culture as a fount of enlivening fantasies that’s built on nightmares—from Jim Crow to the institutionalized rape culture of Hollywood to the debauched banking industry to the online hate machine that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency. Pop culture’s seed is the American notion of self-actualization—a life of power and a varying amount of excess that not-so-secretly depends on others going without.
The poor whites who relate to the hard knocks of Presley’s origins might vote against their own interests because they fear that to change the rules of the capitalist game is to risk forfeiting the chance that they might one day win the lottery—as Presley seemed to—that’s promised by mainstream entertainment. Largely filmed during the 2016 presidential election, The King pointedly features interviews with many poverty-stricken Presley fans who voted for Trump in the last presidential election. Haunting the film like a flatulent cloud, Trump embodies for Jarecki the debauched extremity of the worst implications of Presley’s own fame. At their broadest, both are mascots of an impractical and misleading vision of DIY ethos. Trump’s cruelty and boorishness says to his public, “If I can do this, maybe you can too.” And this is how Trump voters can talk to Jarecki about the country ignoring their problems with a straight face while supporting the corporeal embodiment of said ignorance. (All that plus, once again, the racism that’s the bedrock of our country.)
The King benefits from a quality that’s usually a liability in nonfiction films: Its scattershot structure gets at the truth of pop culture as an ineffable chimera that defines much of the world. Obsessively, virtuosically collapsing his interviews with shots of gorgeously ravaged landscapes set to visceral blasts of rock-n’-roll, soul, rap, and blues, Jarecki renders pop culture as a kind of manufactured oxygen that seems to be on the precipice of gaining physical materiality. The explicit “meanings” of Jarecki’s montages aren’t always entirely apparent, such as when footage of King Kong—from the 1933 film—on the Empire State Building segues into that of Presley surveying the same structure in the 1950s, which leads to Dan Rather’s reflections on America from the building’s roof in the present day. Yet a deep resonance is achieved by such cross-associations, which suggest that pop culture—like broader American history—is a snake eating its own tail, rife with reverberations that feel coincidental, fateful, and freeing as well as imprisoning.
Even casual students of Presley’s life know that the singer, movie star, sex idol, and all-around walking-and-talking media-brand machine was a prisoner. As Jarecki perhaps needlessly recounts for us, manager and handler Colonel Tom Parker screwed Presley out of countless money and steered him toward cheesy, profit-above-all-else assignments like the singer’s stint at Las Vegas. But America, as an entity of mythological promise, is complicit in Presley’s imprisonment, specializing in co-opting its rebellious figures into salespeople who peddle the idea of our country as the greatest in the world, whose every action is justifiable in the name of said greatness. In The King, actor-comedian Mike Meyers describes the difference between America and Canada as being one of sex appeal, as Canada is about “peace, order, and good government” while America is fantastic at selling the idea that its democracy must be spread throughout the world. Meyers’s rage is as palpable as Jarecki’s, as both are alive to the irony and hypocrisy of the notion of forcefully applying democracy, as America has attempted to do in Vietnam and portions of the Middle East, among many other places.
One may wonder how we’ve arrived at the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East via celebrity ruminations on Elvis Presley, and such is the power of Jarecki’s expansive inventiveness, which suggests a filmic equivalent of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music. (Marcus is also interviewed here.) As Jarecki suggests, the American government wanted Presley to serve in the military so that he would be tamed, his art serving as a recruiting message, paving the way for pop culture’s role in the war machine. The implied anarchy of Presley’s fusion of white and black music and gyrating hips would be softened into a symbol of obedience that still satisfied a craving for rebellion—a have-it-both-ways ideological straddling that’s the driving function of politics and pop culture writ large. Yet Jarecki complicates even this reduction. Throughout The King, Presley’s films are contrasted with lonely photos of the singer and footage of America torn to pieces by the civil rights movement. In such a context, Presley’s luridly faux-innocent films come to embody a repressed, hallucinatory feverishness, inadvertently reveling in emotion that Presley couldn’t possibly express as a sainted “all American.”