You think you know what you’re getting with an Elvis documentary. This isn’t that documentary. Over the years there’s been a wide range of documentaries about Elvis Presley, of varying degrees of quality. Some are good, thoughtful and reflective; making the viewer re-evaluate what they thought they knew. Some are something of a love-in, recognisable faces talking about how much they loved him. Some are faces that aren’t recognisable, because they were his neighbour or did his dry-cleaning once or bumped into him in a shop, talking about their brief moment with the icon. The King is most definitely in the first category and then some, because filmmaker Eugene Jarecki focuses on Elvis by using him as a metaphor for ‘the greatest lie of all’, the American Dream.
The documentary is driven, literally, by having people in a car – Elvis’s car. His 1963 Rolls Royce is driven around America by a range of faces, mostly musicians along with some actors and members of the communities the team past through, during the 2016 US election. So many factors make the film so poignant, the fact they had no idea how the election would pan out adds a stinging degree of dramatic irony. The film weaves between multiple narratives – an examination of Elvis’s trajectory; an examination of the rest of the world during that time period and an examination of the now. The outcome? Everything has changed and nothing has changed. We bear witness to the rise & decline of Elvis alongside the rise & decline of America.
The documentary is more akin to a collage, patchwork or a series of snapshots that join together to tell the story of a doomed King and a doomed kingdom. The life of Elvis Aaron Presley is often much mythologised in the manner of a fairy-tale, a ‘poor mamma’s boy from Mississippi’ who found international fame that bought him the ability to buy all that he desired. Didn’t it? Jarecki unpeels the layers but lets us draw out our own conclusions. We know how he was followed and watched for every waking moment; we don’t think about what toil that would have taken psychologically. We know the regime of fear and control that his ‘manger’ Colonel Tom Parker dictated; we don’t think about his lack of freewill and the inevitable sense of entrapment that ensued. We know that he was the first icon of such stratostrophic heights; we don’t think about how truly lonely that must have been. We know how he died; we think little about what caused it.
The Cinderella-esque take on his life is simply of a variant of the ideology of the American Dream; the notion that if you work hard then success will follow. Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote in 1775 that ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley’. John Steinbeck used the line for his 1937 novel ‘Of Mice And Men’, a novel about the impossibility of the American Dream during the Great Depression. In the almost 80 years since Steinbeck’s book, the casualties of the deceptive Dream are fully being felt. What happened to Elvis ‘the champion of the working man’ Presley is an allegory for the American people. By intertwining Elvis and America we can see how culture and politics are equally inseparable – both are mere projections of image.
The end result is a lament for something that everyone thought they knew but never actually existed, not as we wanted it to be anyway.
Dir: Eugene Jarecki
Scr: Eugene Jarecki, Christopher St. John
Featuring: Alec Baldwin, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher, Tony Brown, James Carville, Chuck D, Maggie Clifford, Lana Del Rey.
Prd: Christopher Frierson, Georgina Hill, Eugene Jarecki, Christopher St. John
DOP: Tom Bergmann, Christopher Frierson, Étienne Sauret
Music: Antony Genn, Robert Miller, Martin Slattery
Run time: 107 minutes
The King is in UK cinemas from August 24th.