The King attempts to connect the life of Elvis Presley, a small town boy from Mississippi risen to great heights, with the story of America as a nation. The musical legend’s own inability to wield power and fame responsibly is cast as the US’s tragedy too. His personal appropriation of rock ‘n’ roll – the fruit of black labour and suffering – becomes a metaphor for colonisation and slavery. His greed is America’s greed – embodied in the city of Las Vegas and the strange world of Hollywood. Ultimately, a nation conceived without a monarch had to invent one.
Making one life the story of the States is a big ask and doesn’t always work. Much like the King and his rubber legs, this feature jumps about a bit thanks to its huge scope, but it’s a brave attempt to deliver a fresh take on a man about whom it’s difficult to say anything new. To do this, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes Elvis’s 1963 Rolls Royce on the road, visiting the significant places of the icon’s life, from his humble beginnings in segregated Tupelo – where a young black kid asks, “was this really Elvis Presley’s car?” while he rides alongside filming with one hand – to New York, Hollywood and Vegas, where it’s just another expensive car among thousands.
The documentary is equally accessible to non-subjects of the King as well as Elvis devotees, expanding as it does on the more political themes of Jarecki’s previous work. Filmed during the 2016 election campaign, Trump lingers in the background throughout the movie, although attempts to draw specific parallels often feel forced.
A wealth of contributors sit in the car and offer their views on Elvis and America, including Ethan Hawke, Alex Baldwin, Immortal Technique and 13-year-old country music sensation (and diva) EmiSunshine, who is absolutely captivating. Ashton Kutcher, visibly distressed and uncomfortable, monologues on the darker side of fame. Chuck D, of Public Enemy, expands on his 1989 lyric, “Elvis was a hero to most/ but he never meant shit to me you see/ straight up racist that sucker was,” by exploring humbly and humorously the relationship between individuals, culture and consumption.
In many ways, it’s not a music documentary, but music is still firmly at its heart – the soundtrack features everything from country to hip-hop via Lana Del Ray. There are plenty of wry chuckles and revealing moments, but the film never quite delivers on its promise to get to the heart of America via the life of one man. Even Elvis can’t quite sum up half a continent.
The King is released in select cinemas on 24th August 2018.
Watch the trailer for The King here: