On the 41st year of his tragic death, the King of Rock n’ Roll Elvis Presley is the subject of a number of documentaries on his troubled life. Eugene Jarecki’s political documentary on the iconic figure is a truly rare and unique insight; not only for delving into the vaults of the phenomenal rise and mighty fall of the legendary figure but making it one giant metaphor. Jarecki intelligently compares Presley’s fall from grace with the ugly demise of the American dream under the Trump Administration. The unusual twist in this format allows the majority of the male contributions out of the studio, placing them firmly in the back of Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V as they take a road trip across the USA.
A few famous faces, and those less familiar, jump in the back of the Rolls Royce as it travels across the states from his hometown of Tupelo to Memphis, to LA, New York and Ultimately Vegas. Whilst some faces are questionable in their presence like Ashton Kutcher, Alec Baldwin and even Ethan Hawke (who was, in fact, a producer on the documentary) embark on parts of the journey. Their contributions are used to deliver the film a level playing field, a more balanced act to counteract those who have criticised Presley.
Those that have criticised Presley establish an absolutely valid point; the foundation of his early career was heavily influenced by Black culture. Where a young white man became famous and naturally made a few bucks from his bluesy tones, people such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard didn’t. Whilst his creative peers such as Marlon Brando took a very active presence in the fight for racial equality, Presley stood back not wanting to get involved in fear of rocking the boat and losing his meal ticket. However, if Presley wasn’t carefully controlled by the carnie Col. Tom Parker, could Presley have naturally made that stand, side by side with the culture that gave him his stepping stone?
Surprisingly, Public Enemy’s Chuck D who once rapped the lyric “Elvis was a hero to most,
But he never meant shit to me” in Fight The Power also pop’s up throughout the doc staunchly defending his conscious lyric but also, in some ways, comes to the defence of The King and universally recognises his contribution to American society as a beneficial impact.
Laced with archival footage of Presley at work and play, Jarecki builds a mountain of food for thought; there is no placing the legend on a pedestal of importance as he careers through Elvis’s younger years as an only child of a disadvantaged white family. Eventually placing the argument that his greed for money and fame kept him shackled in chains saw the artist become a complete sell-out; one who forgot what inspired and influenced him in his former years and ultimately ended his life way too soon. Jarecki suggests that the similarities of Presley’s career are intrinsically linked in the same way that America’s fall from grace has spiralled. Again, the filmmaker uses visuals from 80’s American pop culture through to the 2016 Trump campaign trail to make his point heard; it makes for an utterly compelling case.
Jarecki’s sometimes seat of the pants approach may seem ad-hoc; highlighting the question does he even know where he is going with film? But just as Presley’s complex legacy, he undertakes an unnerving and insightful comparison. One, in which both Presley’s and America’s ego, greed and successes have caused their implosive premature death.
The King is out in UK cinemas August 24.