Eugene Jarecki’s The King is a documentary set as a road trip. The film charts the rise and fall of Elvis in relation to America, while riding in the back of “The King’s” Roll Royce. The film features multiple performances from musicians in the back of the automobile, as the car travels from Tupelo, to Memphis, New York, Hollywood, and Las Vegas.
Jarecki’s overall premise is that America, like Elvis, has lost its way. He supposes that the American dream is a myth and that America has forgotten its roots. He begins that examination in Tupelo.
Tupelo is the American version of Liverpool. The entire city is dependent upon the legend of Elvis, as Liverpool is on The Beatles respectively. No town exemplifies Jarecki’s premise of America as an export of entertainment than Tupelo. A proud small Southern city, who in the greatest of ironies, survives on the ghost of a man who “pulled himself” up from his humble beginnings when the town itself cannot do the same. Jarecki’s documentary never seems as powerful as in the formative town of Elvis’s youth. Though, the Memphis section is equally as powerful if flawed.
As with Tupelo, Memphis is Elvis when he’s most innocent. Jarecki uses this setting as a turning point for the budding star. It’s when he went from small town to bustling city. It’s where he first signed with Sun Records and was influenced by the black blues around him. The city becomes a debate of how guilty white artists like Elvis should be of “appropriating” black people’s music. Jarecki dips his toe in the debate, but in terms of his overall premise, the tangent is expulsionary. In fact, once the documentary departs from Memphis in Elvis’s Rolls Royce the issue of race falls by the wayside.
And as the documentary travels from New York, to Hollywood, to Las Vegas, it’s meant to track the decline of Elvis. However, even as people like Mike Myers, Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher, and Ethan Hawke describe the fall of Elvis, the presentation on the screen never matches that same descent. It’s not until the final 10 minutes of the film that we see “fat” Elvis. But the appearance of this near alter-ego is sudden, with little progression beforehand. Unless we lived through the events, we’re not privy to the emotional impact of this shock.
Instead, Jarecki spends this road trip of a film waltzing down tangents. At one point, he’s trying to explain why he’s using one of Elvis’s Rolls Royce’s instead of a Cadillac. At another, he’s asking crew members what they think he’s trying to accomplish with his documentary. Jarecki doesn’t seem to know the answer himself, and sometimes it comes through in his documentary. This causes his premise, breaking the mythology of the American dream and describing what the country has lost, to overshadow his subject: the king. This even leads to him making a connection of Elvis’s decline to an America that voted in Donald Trump, with the great irony being that Elvis most likely would be a Trump voter if he were alive today (he did support Richard Nixon).
However, Jarecki’s premise is flawed. That is, the idea that we’ve lost something singularly American. Yes, Jarecki supposes that the American dream is a myth. The idea of one trying their best and making something of themselves. Jarecki submits that this is true, yet his film still holds on to the belief that America is now more commercial than it’s ever been. It presupposes that America’s main export was democracy, but now it’s entertainment and commercialism.
In fact, America’s main export has never been democracy, except as a myth. It’s main export has always been goods and wish fulfillment, goods made at a cheaper price than everyone else, whether that’s through monopolies, slavery, or low wages, wish fulfillment that’s akin to the commercials on television of perfect families. America has always sold entertainment, but that entertainment, that myth was not only the American dream, but democracy itself. Yes, America paved the way for unions, but it never did so on foreign soil. So while Jarecki tries to divorce himself from the mythology of America, his documentary is still seeped in it. And while he supposes that the American dream is a myth, he never wrestles with the Elvis mythology either. Instead, Elvis and his pedestal are left mostly untouched and the film becomes a standard documentary whereby preserving a story of Elvis that’s been familiar.