The King

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The King (2017)

For a documentary about Elvis, The King is strangely absent from this latest work by activist-filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. Not so much a straw man as a rhinestone-wearing one, the rock ’n’ roll icon’s function within 107 scattershot minutes is to symbolise all that is wrong with America today.

Filmed in 2017, 40 years after Elvis’ inglorious death aged 42 from a heart attack, Jarecki traces his outline and indeed the outline of the US using the template of a road movie. Behind the wheel of Elvis’ own Rolls Royce, Jarecki retraces his subject’s trajectory from dirt-poor beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, to being discovered by Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, to commercial breakout and megastardom, to military service in Germany, to a record-breaking contract in Hollywood, to being chained to nightly shows in Las Vegas, and finally to drug abuse, ill health and death.

The doc is most thorough and persuasive in demonstrating the racist values that continue to shape American society. Elvis went nuclear because the black music Sam Phillips adored did not. ‘Hound Dog’ was written for Big Mama Thornton, but stayed on the margins until it was handed to a handsome young white man. “People talk about cultural appropriation… listen, the entire American experience is cultural appropriation,” says one interviewee, making a salient point, but also highlighting the arbitrary nature of selecting Elvis for this type of scrutiny.

The King gallops onwards. Jarecki would like to take down capitalism in the same breath as racism, making the point that Elvis had dollar bills for eyes, always choosing the biggest pay-cheque over quality of life. He’s not wrong. And yet…

His frenzied filmmaking leans into a more-is-more approach, trying to stun the audience into submission, but often just exhausting us. Conversations with everyday folk are intercut with archive footage and damning contemporary images. Jarecki crams in interviews with high-profile talking heads who function as a Greek chorus commenting on the Big Issues. Some inclusions hit their mark (Chuck D from Public Enemy embraces complexity at every turn) and some are arbitrary as hell (Ashton Kutcher explaining the ups and downs of fame).

Jarecki’s Sundance-winning 2012 film The House I Live In, about the racist agenda of the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex, proved the perfect vehicle for his blunt-force thesis-making, insofar as it has a clear contemporary focus and the wham-bam presentation of facts stacks up persuasively. In The King, Elvis doesn’t quite belong in the symbolic role assigned to him. There is a deliberate aversion from what made him so beloved – that obscenely sexy, treacly voice is drained away in favour of an argument whose shape only roughly corresponds to that familiar quiffed outline.

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