According to The King, America is Fat Elvis. Director Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) takes a weak metaphor and gyrates with it in this documentary, comparing the rise and fall of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll with the trajectory of our country. No matter how hard he tries to connect the dots, however, the analogy remains as stretched as Elvis’ late-career stage clothes.
Throughout, Jarecki has actors and musicians ride in the back seat of Presley’s Rolls Royce as they opine or perform. They go to places such as Tupelo, Mississippi, (Presley’s birthplace) and Memphis (home of Stax Records), though the commentators largely stay in the car as the director explores. He talks to Presley’s neighbors, for example, and an Elvis impersonator who says that Elvis was “a champion for the working man.” There’s repeated emphasis on the idea of Presley starting out as a country boy and rocketing to fame, and how that sudden success led to him feeling trapped and unhappy.
It’s all very scattershot, and as for what it has to do with the state of the U.S.—beyond an admittedly apt comparison to the so-called American Dream—your guess is as good as mine. At one point, Jarecki asks his road crew chief about his idea. “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing with this movie,” he said. “I’m not sure you know what you’re doing.” Another interviewee says that having people ride in the Rolls was “a reach,” that Jarecki could have at least used one of Presley’s Ameri- can-made Cadillacs. It’s odd that the director would undermine himself like this, but perhaps it’s a proactive mea culpa, his way of saying that if the film ends up being a mess, he did really try.
As for the States’ side of the comparison, Jarecki gets a little shy about taking it all the way. There’s talk of the current economy, yes, but only flashes of Trump footage and dances around our political climate. Immortal Technique says that “if Elvis is your metaphor for America, we’re about to OD,” but only indirectly references 45. Though Jarecki filmed at least part of this pre-election: Alec Baldwin—why is Alec Baldwin here?— is the only one who mentions the president. “Trump is not going to win,” he says while in the Rolls. “Trump is not going to win.” How much better the doc would be if it had captured everyone’s opinions after the inauguration!
Of course, music is also a component of The King, but there’s not nearly enough of it. We get only brief glimpses of Presley performances, with more time being devoted to foot- age of his Army days, clips from his movies (there’s lots of discussion about his movies), or audio of his interviews while we look at shots of ’Murica. At the very end, Jarecki really goes random: While Presley sings “Unchained Melody,” there’s a montage that includes KISS, O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Barney, and footage of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Women’s March. At one point, we get a close-up of what looks like a gold-and-glass toilet to punctuate discussion of Presley’s death. It’s in terrible taste, but at the same time fitting, suggesting that the result of Jarecki’s high concept is flushable.
The King opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.