“What do you think I’m doing with this movie?” director Eugene Jarecki (Freakonomics, Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger) asks the chief of his road crew some 40 minutes into The King, a restless documentary bafflement about pretty much everything but most specifically about driving Elvis Presley’s Rolls-Royce across America and wondering what went wrong, with Elvis, with America and, in this one revealing moment, with The King itself.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” says the road crew chief.
Whatever it is, it looks like fun: Jarecki crams musicians (M. Ward, John Hiatt, the Handsome Family) into the back seat and lets them play while he tools about Tupelo, Memphis, Nashville and then America at large. Interviewees wax on about Elvis and all that he can be made to represent, but usually only in context-free, free-associative clips that rarely run more than 10 or 15 seconds. Here’s James Carville, Greil Marcus, Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Immortal Technique and Van Jones, who really seems as if he’d rather be talking about something else. “The cultural imperialism, the military imperialism, the economic imperialism of the United States is the global fact of the last century,” Jones says, “and Elvis Presley is at the center of the center of all of that.”
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Don’t expect to see Jones actually make, like, a case, though. The Rolls rolls slowly, but the film floors it, speeding relentlessly from topic to topic, image to image, tone to tone. Honestly, I’d probably love this film’s wandering spirit and Elvis-is-everywhere philosophizing if it were half as fast or twice as long, if it pinned any thought down long enough to really TCB. Instead, it’s as scattered and disorienting as the infamous LP Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, an official cheapie that consisted of nothing but the King’s between-songs ‘70s stage banter. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intones on that record, “I’m in the NBC peacock,” before suddenly carrying on about something else on a different night. Here, just 15 awkward seconds after Jarecki treats us to the jubilant sight and sound of a squad of Memphis teenagers belting out “Chain of Fools” in the back seat, we’re suddenly hearing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and watching footage of the Klan. And nothing can prepare your mind for the sequence in which Elvis’ TV debut in New York is illustrated with footage of the original King Kong chained on a stage, a vision followed up by nothing less than Dan Rather reciting “America the Beautiful” at the top of the Empire State Building.
Tracing the geography of Elvis’ ascent, from Tennessee to New York, from Hollywood to Las Vegas, Jarecki finds opportunities for speedy précis on any topic that interests him. His vision of Elvis is multitudinous, containing everything anyone wants it to, and algebraic, in that you can plug any variable you plug into it and yield a result — one usually infected by the idea of an America in decline. Not only is Mama Presley’s gyratin’ boy the center of the center of the military industrial complex, it turns out — one dude insists — he’s the reason Vegas went from the city most honest about what America is to one ruled by crass corporations rather than upstanding mobsters. You might want to hear more about that theory, but Jarecki has no time to allow anyone or anything to be persuasive: He’s got to show us a 2016 Bernie Sanders rally; Ashton Kutcher driving and musing about fame; Alec Baldwin vowing, in the run-up to that election, that Donald Trump will not win; footage of nuclear tests; a history of falling wages in Detroit; and all the times that Rolls got towed.
There are moments of clarity and insight. Citing actual evidence and essaying an actual conclusion, Marcus draws upon Thomas Jefferson and Herman Melville to situate Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll as both American and revolutionary — and he convincing likens Elvis to Captain Ahab. A too-quick section cuts between Chuck D, Jones and David Simon as they tangle, with some passion, with the idea of cultural appropriation. Hiatt tears up entering the Rolls, noting that it offers the sense of “how trapped he was.” Perhaps most memorably, Ethan Hawke geeks the hell out over Elvis’ triumph at Sun Records, telling the story of his first recording session for Sam Phillips with infectious relish. Later, Hawke also tears into Elvis’ baldly villainous manager, that Dickensian grotesque Colonel Tom Parker. And the selection of songs and clips from the King’s catalog is wide-ranging and welcome; the film might not move you to Team Elvis if you’re not already converted, but it certainly honors the breadth of his talent. (If you’re not yet a true fan, might I suggest spinning the killer lineup of songs he recorded in the spring of 1960, fresh out of the Army, his last crack at material that truly spoke to him before blowing most of the decade cranking out swill for Hollywood? Check out “A Mess of Blues,” “It Feels So Right,” “Thrill of Your Love,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Reconsider Baby,” “The Girl of My Best Friend” and “I Gotta Know.”)
The film’s most representative passages come late, when we see upsetting footage of Elvis’ last TV concert, recorded in June 1977, not long before his death, when he had started to look a little like a 40ish Rush Limbaugh. That concert is painful, but we’re told by Tony Brown, then Elvis’ pianist, that the King’s rendition that night of “Unchained Melody” “was like it was the greatest performance he’d ever done.” We see Elvis sit down at the piano, ready to serve as his own accompanist. And then for no reason at all, Jarecki cuts away, to Nancy Rooks, one of Elvis’ housekeepers, showing us how to cook up his beloved fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches. The mind reels, at first, watching Jarecki’s film. Then it either marvels or bails. Eventually, for the big finish, Jarecki wanders back to “Unchained Melody,” which Elvis does indeed deliver with might and beauty … and which Jarecki intercuts with footage of Kiss, Scarface, bombs over Baghdad, Hurricane Katrina, foreclosed homes, a model in lingerie dancing for judges and the protests at Standing Rock. It all has something to do with the election of Trump, of course. The through line has left the building.