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Review: The King

July 13, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

What if the rise and fall of Elvis Presley could be seen as a microcosm of America itself, symbolizing nothing less than the birth and death of the American Dream?

This is the basic concept behind The King, a damn near stunning new documentary from director Eugene Jarecki, that sees the filmmaker driving across America in a Rolls Royce that belonged to Elvis himself, and using this road trip to offer a moving study of the country from the post-war boom of the mid-20th Century to where it is now.

The road trip takes us from his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi where fans still take pilgrimages to the house where he was born; to the city of Memphis, Tennessee where he spent his formative years attending a black gospel church that left an indelible mark on his musical stylings; and finally Las Vegas, Nevada where he spent the final years of his life performing. As the Rolls Royce moves from once-prosperous factory towns to bigger cities, different actors and musicians take up residence in the backseat to share their thoughts on both Elvis and the current state of America.

For example, Ethan Hawke joins to talk passionately about Presley’s early work at Sun Records, while Alec Baldwin offers a more critical examination of how the country has become divided along political lines. The film balances out the many admirers of Elvis with insights from political commentator Van Jones and rapper Public Enemy, who talk about the history of racial segregation that was happening behind the meteoric rise of The King. They decry his “appropriation” of black music, as he got famous by taking songs that were initially recorded by African-American artists like Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton, and bringing them to white radio stations that wouldn’t otherwise play them.

The film covers a lot of ground, and goes far beyond just being a typical biography, as much exploring the idea of Elvis and what he came to represent at the time as it does his actual life and career. The film tries to present him as a sort of tragic figure, a young man from humble beginnings who gave up a normal life in exchange for fame and fortune and the chance to make it big, in an almost Faustian trade off. His success ultimately led to his downfall, with his popularity built around an image that masked the pain and suffering underneath.

While he started out as a revolutionary artist in the 1950s, Elvis ultimately came to be seen as somewhat of a gaudy parody of himself in the 1970s, spending the final years of his life wearing sparkly white suits and performing in Vegas, before succumbing to drug addictions that accelerated his very undignified demise. The film culminates by showing both the death of Elvis in 1977 and the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, whose promise to “Make America Great Again” ignited a sort of nostalgic hope for a return to the seeming prosperity of the past in the hearts and minds of many patriotic voters.

The idea, of course, is that America, like Elvis before her, runs the risk of overdosing on past successes that have now given way to excess. Whether or not you agree with this general sentiment that the rise of Trump has exacerbated the downfall of America, and I don’t really personally subscribe to that way of thinking, it’s hard to deny that the country is plagued with deep divisions that have always been there but have now only intensified. The film does a great job of presenting its general thesis, questioning if this grand idea of the American Dream has always been an illusion, like how Elvis represented an idealistic version of the country that maybe never really existed.

The overall arc of the narrative is best summed up by a heartbreaking story that Mike Myers recounts partway through the film. When Elvis used to drive into the Paramount lot where his movies were shot, his manager would put a towel over his head so that the screaming girls couldn’t see him. But after the Beatles burst onto the scene in the 1960s and the screaming girls stopped coming for Elvis, his manager would put a towel over his head so he couldn’t see that there were no more girls.

This is a very powerful example of the great American tragedy. The countercultural rebel had become mainstream, and then ran the risk of ending up obsolete. The American Dream has been all but reduced to a relic of the past, and America is at a turning point. The question now becomes whether the country is in the process of staging a comeback, or if it is doomed to the same fate as Elvis Presley, who is fondly remembered for his many great contributions to the world but died the most degrading death.

America might not be a monarchy, but for a little while they had The King, and maybe, just maybe, that’s enough reason for us to celebrate, regardless of what else happens.

The King is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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