Depending on who you ask, Elvis Presley might be hailed as the greatest rock-and-roll star of all time or condemned as the most destructive force of cultural appropriation in American history. Some may express an admiration for his groundbreaking music and exuberant showmanship while acknowledging the damnable inequality of the system that made him a millionaire; others may decry his refusal to speak out for the rights of the people whose music helped make him an extremely wealthy man.
Elvis is many things to many people, but it cannot be denied that his rise from a dirt-poor son of Mississippi to The King of Rock and Roll is the American success story writ large – and how someone receives his music and perceives his life story might just tell you more about that person than asking them who they voted for in the last election. Esteemed documentarian Eugene Jarecki put this notion to the test two years ago when he gassed up Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and drove all over the United States in search of a national understanding and, perhaps, reconciliation. But a terrible thing happened on the way to the editing room: Donald Trump became the Republican candidate for President of the United States and, by exploiting the very divisiveness Jarecki was attempting to comprehend, won. Now what?
Now we get to wrestle with The King, a Rorschach test of a documentary that bombards the viewer with wildly conflicting takes on the meaning of Elvis Presley in American life. Jarecki invites everyone from celebrities to a hitchhiker and his dog to hang out in the back of the Rolls and muse over Elvis’s significance to them personally and, if they’re so inclined, the state of the country. Jarecki also steps out of the car to chat with locals in places as disparate as Tupelo and Manhattan, gradually painting a portrait of a nation that knows it’s in decline, but seems split on whether a ’68 comeback concert is possible or if we’re lumbering in an opioid-induced stupor toward our ’77 CBS special. Lurking in the background of Jarecki’s journey is candidate Trump, less fat Elvis than Colonel Tom Parker feeding our most self-destructive appetites while he lines his pockets.
In Jarecki’s film, the degree to which you’re willing to sympathize with Elvis’s predicament depends mightily on the color of your skin. Interestingly, some of the most perceptive comments on the pitfalls of sudden fame come from Ethan Hawke and, no joke, Ashton Kutcher, both of whom experienced the rush of celebrity at a formative age. The Wire creator David Simon also drops by to offer up a vigorous defense of young Elvis (giving Jarecki good natured shit for choosing the Rolls instead of a Cadillac as the film’s symbolic conveyance). But there’s not a more moving moment of empathy in the entire movie than when folk rocker John Hiatt, immediately sensing how a born-into-poverty “mama’s boy” from the South must’ve felt being hauled around in the backseat of the most luxurious automobile in the world, breaks down in the Rolls. “How trapped he was,” sobs Hiatt.
CNN pundit Van Jones has no tears to spare for Elvis. He excoriates the singer for ripping off African-American culture and never giving back to this community once he’d made millions off their music. Public Enemy’s Chuck D, on the other hand, expresses a surprising note of conciliation as he reflects on the megastar who, as he famously stated in the seminal “Fight the Power”, “never meant shit to me.” He hasn’t necessarily become a fan in the two decades since the recording of that song, but when it comes to the notion of cultural appropriation, he doesn’t see ill intent in Elvis’s art. “What moves you, moves you,” he says. (For the record, he’s still very much on the “motherfuck John Wayne” train.)
What moved Elvis wound up repulsing a significant chunk of the American populace, which viewed his music as a corrupting (i.e. desegregating) influence on their children. This was the path to miscegenation, and the end of the white race as we know it. To that end, Elvis was probably at his most dangerous when he was drafted into military service in 1958, which none-too-coincidentally took him out of pop cultural circulation for two years. When he returned, he was a little stiffer, and, compared to the Greensboro sit-ins, a whole lot safer. As one interview subject notes, Elvis left as James Dean and came back as John Wayne. Before long, The Beatles touched down at JFK, Muhammad Ali shook up the world, and Elvis was, culturally speaking, as radical as Mel Tormé.
As Elvis moves into his Vegas phase (after the unrealized black-leather promise of the ’68 comeback special), Jarecki begins to draw sharper parallels between Elvis’s decline and America’s. There’s pill-popping Elvis’s deluded hypocrisy in asking Nixon to make him a drug enforcement agent so that he could turn the tide of rising anti-American sentiment among young people. In Elvis’s muddled mind, he alone could save this country. As with the comeback special, there was no follow-through; Elvis went right back to touring and being his usual apolitical self.
By the time Jarecki gets to the taping of the 1977 CBS special (which found a pill-addled, distressingly bloated Elvis struggling through sets in Omaha, Nebraska and Rapid City, South Dakota), we’re left feeling a mix of pity and disgust for Elvis. Here’s this explosively talented musician who loved what moved him so much, he had to share it with the whole world decorum be damned. He broke seemingly impenetrable barriers, brought a “forbidden” (i.e. “black”) style of music to the mainstream, and had the opportunity to bring a whole rebellious generation together. But for reasons of professional self-preservation, Elvis stopped rocking the boat at the moment he was about to tip it over. Maybe all that bloat he’s carrying around onstage in 1977 is guilt retention, and, if so, I’d like to think that’s what’s pouring out of him when he sits down at the piano and launches into the sole highlight of those two concerts: a fully-committed, full-voiced rendition of “Unchained Melody”. Jarecki really goes for it here with a montage of atrocities inflicted by and upon the United States over the last forty years. All that promise for good just pissed away. Elvis didn’t ask for this responsibility any more than America asked to be the beacon of democracy for the rest of the world, but when you’re that well off and have the potential to make the world that much better, what kind of asshole shrugs that off? And how do you live with yourself knowing you’ve squandered that opportunity?
Elvis died two months later. How much longer have we got?