For a film that only a few thousand people have probably seen to date, Eugene Jarecki’s The King has been receiving an extraordinary amount of press coverage and positive reviews. Formerly titled Promised Land and filmed against the backdrop of the 2016 election and ascension of Trump-ism, it is less a documentary and more one man’s celluloid essay on the American Dream. It is certainly not another biopic about Elvis Presley, so there is nothing you’ll learn about the man that you already don’t know. Playing at two theaters in New York and another in Los Angeles, it is a gem in search of a jewelry store. And while it will do a limited summer run of art houses throughout the country, it won’t likely end up at your suburban multiplex popcorn palace alongside this summer’s superhero blockbusters. So keep this film in the back of your mind for when it gets picked up by Netflix or Amazon, because it’s one to be seen.
It’s described by the filmmaker as “a musical road trip across America.” The concept of taking Elvis’ restored 1963 Rolls Royce on a countrywide cruise along the highways and backroads is brilliant, but dropping a few dozen people in the backseat for only brief snippets of conversation and edited performances leaves a music fan only wanting more. Thirty seconds of The Handsome Family is barely a tidbit of an appetizer for a potential feast featuring John Hiatt, Emi Sunshine and The Rain, the Stax Academy All-Stars, M. Ward, and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. The full performance of “Rich Man’s World (1%)” from rapper Immortal Technique has been released as a music video, and I am hopeful that more left on the cutting room floor will be forthcoming.
Using thoughts and recollections to measure the impact of Elvis on our society, Jarecki relies on observations from Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Peter Guralnick, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, Ashton Kutcher, Greil Marcus, and Elvis’ friends, sidemen, and others to illustrate where we once were and what we’ve become today. There is a parallel that I see in the rise and fall of the boy from Tupelo, and the trajectory of post-WWII America. Take a look around you on all fronts: economics, politics, the division between wealth and poverty, loss of jobs and manufacturing, the increase of xenophobia and racism, and the corrosion of addiction from inner-city to suburb to rural. America in 2018 is Elvis in 1977: a body neglected and in decline, a drug-addled brain and a cadre of enablers.
Whether you buy into this premise or not, the film is no less compelling to watch. The cinematography is exceptional, allowing one to connect with the expansiveness and beauty of our country as well as the deterioration. The scenes shot inside the Rolls Royce are cloistered and claustrophobic, successfully illustrating what Elvis must have felt for much of his public life. There is no spoiler alert needed … you already know the ending. But I’ll close this out with the King’s final scene: Elvis performing live in concert as his life is about to slip away. He’s clearly a man on the edge of death, and in four minutes he gives you everything he has left. It’s a last gasp. Welcome to America, now go home.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboardand Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed.