Since the 2016 election, American cinema (like so many citizens) has been struggling to understand how we got here, and how we move forward. Documentaries have bore the brunt of that struggle, with works like 13th and Get Me Roger Stone digging deep into the cultural and historical factors that have led to the divided, disillusioned, Trump-era America we now face. The King is one of the stranger entries in this budding subgenre of Trump-era political docs, a film that attempts to tie the rise and fall of America with the rise and fall of one of its most iconic cultural figures: Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, what results is a mediocre hybrid of two potentially great documentaries that never quite comes together.
The King starts with a novel premise: writer/director Eugene Jarecki (no stranger to political docs with Sundance Grand Jury winners Why We Fight and The House I Live In) hauls Elvis’ infamous 1963 Rolls-Royce on a road trip across the major landmarks of the King’s life, from his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi to Las Vegas, where he spent the twilight years of his career. Along the way, he picks up musicians and celebrities to sit in the car and talk about Elvis’ life and impact, interspersed with interviews and archival footage charting not only Presley’s own tumultuous life, but America’s as well. Jarecki’s premise is simple: If Elvis is America, then the last few years have been our Fat Elvis period.
It’s easy to see where Jarecki got the idea. After all, there are few figures as inextricably tied to the American Dream, and the vagaries of capitalism, like Elvis Presley. His rise to fame echoes the innate idealism of post-war American society, only to be propped up by the careful curation of his persona by record executives, and handlers like Presley’s predatory manager Col. Tom Parker (a figure of derision throughout the doc) constantly reshaping his career trajectory.
As much as Presley influenced the world of popular culture, so too was he shaped by the very economic and political forces that made him who he was. He wasn’t just a musician, he was a product to be sold; just look at any of the bright, bland, Technicolor musicals he wasted his time with in the ‘60s. As The King argues, even his stint in the military was a publicity stunt to make him acceptable as a ‘good American boy.’ While The King recognizes the greatness of Elvis’ cultural impact, it’s not shy about detailing the failings of the system that propped him up as a beacon of national idealism. Even Ashton Kutcher pops up with some surprising insights about the dangers of achieving fame at such a young age.
When Jarecki is focused on the King himself, his novel framework allows for some of the doc’s most concise and personal storytelling. It’s a treat to see artists pay homage to the King in their brief rides in the backseat of his Rolls-Royce, their moods running the gamut from jam session to elegy. Whether it’s 13-year-old Emi Sunshine exuberantly yodeling in the backseat, or John Hiatt being moved to tears by simply sitting there, it’s in these moments that The King feels more like a celebration of the man in all his complexity.
Unfortunately, The King loses the beat far too often in a vain search for topicality. Jarecki often strains his exploration of Elvis as a metaphor for America. For fear of not being comprehensive enough, the doc makes several pit stops to talk about racism in 1950s media, cultural appropriation, economic anxiety, Donald Trump, and a host of other side issues that are only loosely related to the King. Even David Simon calls Jarecki out on the weakness of his central metaphor: why not use one of Presley’s old Cadillacs, instead of an English car? For as well-intentioned as Jarecki may be, The King starts with a conclusion and works backward from there, and the results are more than a little tenuous.
It’s the Trump segments that ring particularly hollow: it’s only been a year since this film was presumably finished, and the country has been through so much political turmoil and administrative evil since then that it’s downright morbid to see people like Alec Baldwin smirking smugly in the backseat, telling Jarecki “Oh, Trump’s not gonna win.” It’s hard not to think that The King’s warnings come far too late: If America was already Fat Elvis in 2017, 2018 feels like we’re sitting on a Graceland toilet seat for the very last time.