Eugene Jarecki is a documentary filmmaker who’s never been afraid to go there, to ask the hard questions and investigate from every angle. His 2005 film Why We Fight, about America’s seemingly insatiable need to be supreme in all things military, received the Grand Jury Award at Sundance that year. The House I Live In, from 2012, took to task the U.S.’s drug policy and its profound implications on human rights.
Now, Jarecki softens his approach ever so much in The King as he takes Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce on a cross-country road trip to talk to Americans from every walk of life (some you’ll recognize, some you won’t). He’s still as determined as ever to shed the superficial and pre-conceived notions we all-t0o-naively ascribe to, of course. It’s just that this time around his way into the deeper conversations is by way of a hip-shaking, blues-singing, world-changing American superstar.
The film made its Chicago premiere earlier this year at DOC10, a weekend film festival each Spring that features ten of the most anticipated documentary films of the year (seriously, it’s a great festival. Mark your calendars.) But I digress…
Jarecki attended the screening and participated in a post-film Q&A; well, it was more like a post-film “listen to the director expound on the experience of making the film” than an actual question and answer session, but it was nevertheless an interesting added perspective to what we’d just seen. He talked about how difficult it was not only to market the film—is it about Elvis? About politics? About nostalgia or progress or how easy it is for democracy to spiral out of control?—but also how challenging it was to find a focus for the film in the first place.
Thankfully, Jarecki and team winnowed down hours of footage to a compelling, if sometimes rambling, examination of the intersection of pop culture and politics at a time when that very intersection is threatening to be the end of life as we know it here in these great United States. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect to sit down with (or in some cases drive around with) ordinary folks and celebrities alike to talk about how Elvis influenced them and just how that influence continues to play out today.
There are a few narrative threads running through The King, and though at times it can feel like Jarecki is telling us so much that he’s not really telling us anything at all, ultimately he manages to tie all the strings together to get us thinking about our own role in how we got to here. Among the guests in the Rolls Royce are a series of musicians, from a blues legend to a grade-schooler with a voice that can fill a canyon, let alone a car; celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris and more; as well as a handful of Average Jane and Joes he meets along the way. Each is appropriately awed by sitting in the same plush seats as The King himself, and every one of them seems immediately comfortable with opening up abotu their pasts, their political views, or their best Elvis story.
Intertwined throughout the road trip are more traditional sit-down interviews with authors, pundits and creatives who bring to the film its most challenging moments, where the All-American legend of Elvis is examined in stark contrast to the deep racial divides that existed as he rose to fame (and, make no mistake, continue to exist today). Of particular poignancy are contributions from Van Jones and Chuck D (of Public Enemy), who articulate the reality of the American experience of the same era for people of color. This, in a documentary filled to the brim with tough questions and difficult truths, is the storyline that resonates the most, as Jarecki forces audiences to reframe our understanding of an American story we thought we knew inside and out.
With The King, Jarecki builds on his track record of digging into a seemingly familiar subject matter from new and under-investigated angles. It’s a credit to his documentarian chops that he can take what at first glance is a universally beloved figure and mine it for depths never before explored. That he’s able to, on top of all that, tie this story into what we face today as a country as divided as ever along racial, politica and religious lines is no small feat. The result is a documentary unlike anything else you’ll see this year, and one that will certainly inspire some reflection long after the credits roll.
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