Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight(2005), Reagan(2011) and The House I Live In(2012). His latest, The King, focuses on Elvis Presleyas a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:
“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–John Waters
Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.
Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), Ethan Hawke (a certified Elvis fan and the film’s producer), Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers (startlingly lucid), Ashton Kutcher (the most misplaced), and church folk. The last viewpoint is important, because they’re the very same evangelicals that sacrificed their ethics to vote for Trump (and other morally bankrupt characters, e.g. Roy Moore) to secure their white bread system. We can, of course, succumb to condescending platitudes that the low-informed are easy targets; but it was underestimating their numbers that secured Trump’s ‘Murica.
Yes, The King is devastatingly political. It damn well should be, because we can’t accept the (borrowed) excuse of someone like the WWII-era Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who feebly spin-doctored sitting on his hands with the justification of avoiding politics. Rather, he avoided an ethical backbone. Jarecki’s politicizing of American culture is justified because now, more than ever—in an age where some restaurants require a college degree and 3-4 years experience to get into management—we elected a blatantly misogynistic, racially pandering, trash TV host, with no previous governing experience, to the highest office in the land. We did so in adulation of his (inherited, not earned) money and pop celebrity status. When Jarecki paints a connection between the fat Elvis of casino excess dying on a toilet to the fat blowhard and pornstar-lubbin’ casino baron, in way over his head, retreating to the golf course, it’s done so with the subtlety of a Batman KAPOW!
The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “A symphony, like the world, should contain everything.” That is the inherent, authentic spirituality of Jarecki’s The King. Admittedly, by encompassing everything, it occasionally gets away from the filmmaker, but there is also a refreshingly idiosyncratic sprawling quality that renders it unforgettable.