Review: 'The King'

In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise
At his height, Elvis Presley captivated the nation; at his lowest, he died on his toilet hopped up on opiods.

Nancy Rooks was the housekeeper at Graceland when Elvis Presley died in 1977. Toward the end of Eugene Jarecki's documentary The King, she demonstrates the way to make one of his favorite meals, a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich on white bread.

"You put the butter in the skillet and do it like you do a grilled cheese sandwich," Rooks explains. This method is slightly different from the one his cook, the late Mary Jenkins, demonstrates in "The Burger and The King," a 1995 BBC program—she toasted the bread first before putting it in the buttered frying pan—but the message is still the same. Elvis gratified every one of his unhealthy habits until the cumulative effects killed him at 42.

Adding to the ongoing list of postmortem films that try to exhume and revivify Elvis—if not his actual corpse then his enduring mythology—Jarecki begins his version of the story by examining highlights from The King's biographical "reel."

He makes an impressionistic collage of those moments in Elvis' life we're overly familiar with—his first recording sessions at Sun Records in Memphis, those unruly hips that made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the army conscription, a meeting with his cat-eyed, future bride-to-be Priscilla and the arrival of his Machiavellian manager Col. Tom Parker. Jarecki pastes archival audio snippets of the dead pop star over countless still and moving images of Elvis surrounded by smothering fans, press and paparazzi. The director creates the illusion of bringing him temporarily back to life when he pairs this black and white imagery with his disembodied speaking voice.

The King also draws a sly, present-day parallel between fans lining up for selfies and the toxic quality of Elvis' supernova-like fame in the 1950s. But the director wants to accomplish something more than merely repeating the story of a single icon's highly publicized rise and fall. He interviews civilians, musicians and celebrities alike to hear their reminiscences about the man they knew, the Elvis they once fell in love with or the bloated showman they take pity on or mock. Those interviews are pointedly shot before the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Jarecki is intent on creating an Elvis-shaped prism through which entertainers like Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Chuck D, Mike Myers and a platitude-wielding Dan Rather can reflect on the American condition.

To visually unite this random assortment of talking heads, the filmmakers borrowed The King's 1963 silver Rolls Royce and drove it across the country. They followed the outlines of Elvis' career geographically. The camera travels from Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born, to Los Angeles for his sellout Hollywood phase and on to his final years in Las Vegas. Elvis' biography may provide context for those in the audience who know little to nothing about him, but it's ultimately beside the point in The King.

More than anything, Jarecki wants to make sense of what will become of the nation in a post-Obama America. So Elvis the man gets subsumed by "Elvis" the metaphor. The hip-hop artist Immortal Technique neatly sums up what he represents for the filmmaker: "If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we're about to OD." David Simon (The Wire) also suggests that driving an American car like a Cadillac would have made for a better symbol than a Rolls Royce. Jarecki acknowledges the limits of comparing Elvis' decline with that of America's by including comments like Simon's, or by the political pundit Van Jones, that question his approach to the subject—but he does get a lot of mileage from testing the idea.

Other artists express more sympathy for the isolated Elvis, for someone who lacked the imagination or willpower to do more than obey the Hollywood and record executives who signed his massive paychecks. Emmylou Harris poetically says, "He's almost like a Greek tragic figure, alone in that experience. Maybe he was The King, but he was doomed." Many of those interviewed begin to talk about Elvis but end up sounding like they're also talking about America. John Hiatt does this when he sits in the back seat of the Rolls. He gets choked up, and, unable to say a word, starts to cry.

The King
109 minutes; R
Jul 6
Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley
Clay Theatre, San Francisco

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