Writer-director Eugene Jarecki uses journey of Elvis Presley in The King as a way of showing us the rise and fall of the American Dream.
It’s an interesting premise. The King isn’t an outright documentary of Elvis Presley. There are clips of Elvis as the singer was making his rise. We get a number of celebrities discussing Elvis while riding in his car. The film traces us through some of Presley’s locations. At the center of the film is Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce. For a car as old as it is, I’m honestly surprised that it is in working condition some 50 years later.
It’s a no-brainer decision to film in Memphis and Las Vegas. Jarecki also takes the film to New York and elsewhere. All the while, people sit in the back of the car to discuss Elvis Presley. After all, the musician was the personification of the American dream, right? He was this poor boy from Tupelo, Miss. He sets out to record a song for his mom. The next thing you now, Presley starts his climb to the top of the world.
There’s a fascinating debate to be made about Elvis Presley and cultural appropriation. Here you have this white singer from Tupelo, Miss. who made his way to Memphis, Tenn. He would be discovered by Sam Phillips and signed to a deal with Sun Records. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were the two Jewish songwriters behind a number of hit songs. One of those was “Hound Dog,” originally written fro Big Mama Thornton. Yet she couldn’t make it a hit song in the same way as Presley. They offered the tune to Presley and the rest is history. There were a number of people of color making their rise in the early days of rock and roll. While many would become famous, none had the capability of selling records like Elvis.
Framing the rise and fall of Elvis as a comparison to the American Dream is a fascinating way of looking at it. Is the American Dream going to overdose in the same way? Salaries have stayed stagnant even as inflation rises for yet another consecutive year. If economists were brought on board in interviews, the argument would be stronger. Yeah, there’s journalists like Dan Rather and David Simon but those two alone aren’t strong enough to make a case for the film’s argument.
“Every chance he prioritized money, and where did it put him?” Ethan Hawke comments. “Dead and fat on the toilet at 42.”
Saturday Night Live alumnus Mike Myers makes an appearance that serves only one purpose in the film. Myers refers to it: as “The Canadian immigrant point of view.”
A conversation can be made about where America is going as a country. While there’s a case to be made for the metaphorical argument behind The King, the film lives and dies on the discussion about Elvis Presley.
DIRECTOR: Eugene Jarecki
FEATURING: Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, John Hiatt, Van Jones, Ashton Kutcher, Mike Myers, Dan Rather, David Simon