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The King

Here’s a potentially interesting premise: A cross-country road tour in a 1963 Rolls Royce formerly owned by Elvis Presley himself. The King is a documentary featuring musicians, historians, celebrities, and Americans of every stripe taking a ride in Elvis’ car as they ruminate on the life and legacy of the King. All the while, the filmmakers try to draw parallels between the present day and Elvis’ postwar prime.

It works out pretty well at first. We start out with Elvis’ birthplace in some tiny little Mississippi town, only to find that there’s basically nothing there. Early on, we hear quite frequently about this house or that church or even an entire town that would have been wiped out by now if it didn’t have a connection with Elvis Presley. But in truth, it’s not that any of these landmarks got preserved — they got transformed. Tupelo, Mississippi, is no longer a town — it’s a giant shrine to Elvis Presley. The people who live there don’t have money, they don’t have food, they don’t have jobs or healthcare or reliable shelter; they just have Elvis and all the tourism he brings in.

Elvis was very much the American Dream come to life. And it killed him at age 42. Even so, he came from nothing and ended up with everything, which seems increasingly unattainable for anyone today. Though he was also abused and destroyed by systems and corporate douchebags who stood to profit from him, which sounds painfully familiar today.

Something else that rings achingly true to the filthy underbelly of the American Dream is how Elvis gained his success through the exploitation of black culture. In all fairness, the documentary makes it clear that Elvis and producer Sam Phillips were trying to find that crossover hit that would make black music cool with a mainstream white audience and use that to help ease race relations in America. Perfectly reasonable. The problem is that Elvis never once acknowledged his debt to black culture or did anything to lift up African Americans. And it’s not like his contemporaries didn’t take a stand on social justice in those troubled times — Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Muhammad Ali all famously protested for a more progressive America. Though to be fair, they all paid dearly for it with jail time and industry blacklisting, while Elvis died impossibly wealthy and beloved by the world… of drug abuse at the age of 42. So, you tell me who made the right call.

Everything in the movie starts to go smoothly, and then things slowly get unintentionally weird. My favorite example concerns the use of footage from the classic King Kong (1933). At first, the movie is used as an example of how pop culture portrayed black people as uncultured savages inferior to pristine white beauty. All well and good. But then, later on, a clip from the same movie is used to draw parallels between Elvis’ debut in New York to that of Kong. We could spend all day trying to unravel the analogy of “Elvis : Kong :: White People : Carl Denham and Ann Darrow :: Colored People :: Skull Island Natives”, but that would be a waste of time. Because then the movie plays clips of King Kong scaling the Empire State Building against… wait for it… Dan Rather, on his way to an interview with our film crew at the top of the Empire State Building.

So Kong is Elvis and Kong is also Dan Rather. What the fuck is this and what does it have to do with anything?!

The people behind this movie had absolutely no idea what they were doing or what they were trying to say. And that’s not me saying that, that’s director Eugene Jarecki saying that. About halfway into the movie, Jarecki is filmed talking with one of his road crew, confessing that he has no idea what he’s saying or what film he’s trying to make. Why on earth he would come right out and admit that to the audience, I don’t have the slightest clue.

A huge problem is that the filmmakers have a lot to say about the state of our union. They have a lot to say about racial inequality, wealth inequality, and Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. They have a lot to say about how America’s chief export used to be agriculture, and now it’s entertainment. They have a lot to say about how America started out as a democratic nation and now we’re a capitalist nation above all else. But the filmmakers were smart enough to realize that they couldn’t make that the primary focus of the movie because it would come off as preachy and uninspired and nobody would watch it.

So instead, the filmmakers set out to make a documentary about the life and times of Elvis Presley as a metaphor for the rise and fall of the USA. To repeat, that’s a potentially fine idea. The problem is that instead of leaving the “America allegory” as implicit subtext, the filmmakers put it up in the biggest and boldest text they possibly could. As a direct result, the movie gets carried away with incoherent montages of clashing news clips against pop culture clips, going for minutes at a time without even mentioning Elvis.

On one level, the movie follows the general and easily followed arc of starting with Elvis’ birth and going through to his death at the end. But on another level, the movie jumps haphazardly from one time period to another, talking about civil rights, the history of Las Vegas, the 2016 election, and other random subjects with no semblance of narrative logic or structure. There are so many different ideas and statements in this film, and I can see how most if not all of them could have been compatible, but their presentation here clashes rather than dovetails. It only serves to make the subject more opaque, and that’s a fatal error for a documentary.

The King is undone by its own ambition. The filmmakers wanted to make this grand epic statement about America’s past and present, but the scope expanded so far out of control that the movie ultimately makes no intelligent or coherent statement at all. The filmmakers easily could have and should have used Elvis Presley as a means of focusing the movie’s thesis, but the movie instead launches into so many extended asides that touch on Barney the Dinosaur, 9/11, and everything in between except for Elvis.

There’s a lot of great music here and some of the interviews are fun, but I’m sorry I can’t recommend this.

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