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Film Review: ‘The King’ Makes Elvis A Metaphor For America

About 40 minutes into the documentary “The King,” filmmaker Eugene Jarecki is asked what he’s doing with this film. He’s even asked if he knows what the point of the doc is. When he asks the man who posits the question what he thinks, he perfectly sums it up. He’s looking at the rise and fall of Elvis Presley alongside the rise and fall of America. Now, this conversation is taking place in Elvis’ 1963 Rolls Royce. The movie largely takes place within it, as Jarecki and a whole host of folks, both famous and anonymous, discuss Elvis. It’s a road trip through America while talking about an American icon, but it’s also a history trip through one of the country’s most turbulent times.

“The King” is a documentary that doesn’t have a traditional through line, but more the feel of a road trip. As the car goes from place to place, Elvis’ history is regaled to us by various folks, along with what was going on in America at the time. If you were to ask what the film was about, it’s more a low key debate than anything else. This approach may alienate some traditionalists, but it helps separate the movie from the pack.

Elvis is clearly used as a metaphor by Jarecki. Undeniably progressive in his approach and his politics, the filmmaker still crafts a compelling portrait that reaches beyond simply ideology. Along with his co-writer Christopher St. John, Jarecki makes the metaphor more of a discussion than a statement. This doc has a clear point of view, but your own interpretation of things is just as valid. “The King” works in some ways as a tribute to the musician and America, even if there’s more of a critique at hand when you consider the whole story.

One of the most interesting things that the filmmaker does is showcase images of the country, both urban and rural, while radio and television personalities talk about its decline. Now, it sounds like a lot of it is Fox News propaganda, but the point comes across loud and clear. Those who cling to the past are the types who only see young and thin Elvis. They have tunnel vision. Old and fat Elvis doesn’t enter into their minds, just like they refuse to see America as a place for diversity.

As you might expect, Donald Trump looms large over the doc. Taking place during the lead up to the 2016 Presidential Election, he hovers just beyond the reaches of the talking heads. Occasionally, Jarecki uses one of his awful rants on the campaign, though it’s not a constant. Mostly, his activation of angry rural Americans is tied into the initial rejection of the type of music Elvis played by large amounts of the country. Of course, the color of Presley’s skin helped introduce the sound to them in a more acceptable way, and that’s never shied away from.

Among the celebrities who take rides in the car, Alec Baldwin and Ethan Hawke loom the largest. Baldwin just adds some color, while something Hawke says late in the doc sums up “The King” well. He talks about how Elvis always chose money, even if it wasn’t the better option for him as a person. In that way, America has gone down a heartless path at times as well. Hawke comes off like a bit of an expert on Presley, especially taking to task Colonel Tom Parker, his manager. It’s this last bit from him, however, towards the end, that truly stays with you.

Overall, “The King” is a unique documentary. Ending on the legend, in his final days, a shell of his former self, belting out a haunting version of “Unchained Melody” is a perfect coda. Just as Elvis had lost something, so had the country. Still, that glimmer of greatness shines through. Whether you’re an expert or a fan of the musician, or just curious, this doc offers up something for you to take in.


GRADE: (★★★)