Oscar-nominated director Eugene Jarecki’s fascinating new film The King charts the rise and fall of Elvis Aaron Presley, and links it to both the historical development of America and the rise of Donald Trump.
Midway through The King things begin to break down. Literally. Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce – which Jarecki has been using to roll across the United States and host famous talking heads and musical guests to ride in the back and riff on Elvis – conks out and the director finds himself riding next to his road manager who’s driving the tow truck. He despairs of the direction/lack of direction the film is taking. The road manager sums it up for him: “You’re using the life of Elvis as a metaphor for the rise and decline of the US.” When asked if it works, the road manager only partly agrees. He is one of many participants who seems to view the making of the film with some skepticism.
The ever-worth-listening-to David Simon argues that the choice of a Rolls-Royce is cack-handed metaphorically. “Why not one of his Cadillacs?” he jabs. But rather than a weakness, the visibility of Jarecki’s struggle to come to terms with its subject and its contemporary significance, or lack thereof, is a strength of the film. This is not just a biopic, or a bunch of worthies singing the praises of the King of Rock and Roll and hoping thereby to get a dribble of the blue suede limelight. Rather, it is a thought experiment, an argument, an essay in the true sense of that word, which is truly revealing.
It is almost a truism to argue that Elvis embodies the American Dream. Born dirt poor in Tupelo, Elvis was brought up in the poorest neighbourhoods – the epitome of ‘poor white trash’ – where he encountered black music from stoop musicians and gospel churches. His overnight success came courtesy of the Sun Studios and Sam Phillips who heard Elvis the black rock n’ roll but sung by a white man. Race as a theme – and cultural appropriation subsidiary to that – is approached head on, with Chuck D scathing in his contempt of Elvis and CNN commentator Van Jones, seeing Elvis as a white man who took black culture and gave nothing back. Interestingly, the musician Chuck D has no truck with the cultural appropriation argument: “The Beastie Boys introduced Public Enemy”. Neither does Simon, pointing out Hound Dog was written by two Jewish songwriters.
The fame and controversy of the young Elvis was disrupted and ultimately co-opted by the army when he was sent to Germany for two years in the service. He went in as James Dean and came out as John Wayne, one commentator notes. With Elvis’ return comes his move to Hollywood and a series of movies that frittered away his time and talent. The guests seem at times random. Mike Myers turns up and asks immediately: “I know what you’re thinking. What is Mike Myers doing in this film?” But Myers makes some incredibly perceptive points, just as pointing out the weirdness of the republic America’s longing for a king: “Why do we call Bruce Springsteen the Boss? I thought we were supposed to hate the boos?”
Likewise, Ethan Hawke is a bafflingly random passenger in Elvis’ Rolls who then earns his gas money, pointing out that every decision Elvis made was to take the money over any other consideration. The move from Sun to RCA; from touring and music to trashy Hollywood movies; from the ’68 Comeback Special and revived offers of world tours to a lucrative Vegas residency where the world would come to him and ‘Colonel’ Parker could get his gambling jollies. The election that has been running in the background and in tandem with the making of the film begins to break through. As Donald Trump triumphs, the thesis that America is now in its Fat Elvis period becomes increasingly convincing.
Elvis finds himself at the end of a series of bad decisions and half-baked magical thinking, stuffed with fast foods to the point of obesity, strung out on drugs while insisting on being part of Nixon’s War on Drugs, living in a bubble, surrounded by a corrupt Memphis mafia and running on the fumes of a nostalgic charisma. In some ways, The King is one of the best films to come out of the Trump era because it approaches its real target so obliquely. By the end, it was clear that The King was no longer Elvis after all, but someone who instead of being dead on the toilet bowl is merely tweeting.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty