I did not grow up with Elvis Presley music, as my parents are not fans of his. As such, my knowledge of Elvis’s work is limited to a handful of his movies, such as Jailhouse Rock viewed as part of a cinema history class, a few of his biggest hit songs, and just general pop culture saturation (the Epic Rap Battles Of History with Elvis is fantastic). My primary sources for information about the King of Rock N Roll are the movies Lilo And Stitch and Bubba Ho-Tep, and no, I am not joking.
I was so ignorant about Elvis that I was under the assumption that he was much older than 42 when he died. My guess was off by over ten years, and I only discovered that thanks to the documentary The King. Directed by Eugene Jarecki, the premise is simple in its conceit. One of Elvis’s Rolls-Royces gets a restoration and Jarecki takes it on the road, interviewing celebrities, fans, and people who happen to live where the rockstar use to reside.
These interviews are interspersed with archival footage, musical performances, and news stories all relating to, or directly spoken by (or performed, etc.), Elvis. Parallels are drawn between the United States of America’s societal and political upheaval going on at the time and the modern campaign of one Donald J. Trump (this was filmed before the 2016 election). This stance gives The King a relevance that a more straightforward narrative towards Elvis’s life could not achieve.
“One of Elvis’s Rolls-Royces gets a restoration and Jarecki takes it on the road, interviewing celebrities and fans…”
The movie does a splendid job of highlighting his early love of music, the wheeling, and dealing that led to his first record being produced and played on the radio, and the subsequent explosion of popularity in that song’s aftermath. Using speeches from politicians to put that era’s society into proper perspective, it is clear that the youth felt not only under-represented but unfairly so as well. Their attachment to a public figure who defied common norms and decorum gave them their own icon.
Ethan Hawke is sitting in the car, espousing how his roommate (at the time) loved Elvis and got him turned onto the King. He discussed, with great detail, how all these particular elements had lined up just so, and thus, the Elvis Presley everyone knows was born. His passion for the man’s music comes through in each word.
Ashton Kutcher is on hand as well, as he pontificates on how fame can mess with people’s expectations of you. Your skill set is at a particular level but because you are famous many people expect you to be good at any number of things, only some of which may qualify under your specific purview. It is, however, Austin Powers himself, Mike Myers that is the most eloquent and well spoken. As a Canadian, he discusses the moment he discovered that the US had an excellent new export – iconography and popular culture. He obviously knows his Elvis history, and that makes him a fascinating interviewee.
“Exploring societal and political climates during his reign atop the charts allows for a timely watch…”
There is an issue with the documentary that needs to be addressed, though. Oddly enough, for such a central component to the film, the Rolls Royce is largely left devoid of context. Friends or fellow musicians sit in the car, a few weeping with a flood of memories of Elvis. But why was this car the vehicle to represent Elvis? Was it the only car he’d drive? Well, no, he owned a BMW or two, roughly a dozen different Cadillacs, a Volkswagen Beetle, and two different Rolls Royces, this one included.
Just from an iconography standpoint, even with my minimal knowledge of the man, I know that Elvis plus cars equal a pink Cadillac. I am not sure what I am missing about this particular Rolls Royce, but it is an odd disconnect between the audience and the movie without more context.
The King is exhaustive in its scope, covering Elvis Presley’s life and music. Exploring societal and political climates during his reign atop the charts allows for a timely watch. But, it does not go far enough in explaining certain elements that friends, fellow musicians, fans, or artists wax nostalgic on; such as the iconic, central Rolls Royce. Elvis fans will love it, anyone else will appreciate it, but will not feel the need to rewatch.
The King (2018) Directed by Eugene Jarecki. Written by Eugene Jarecki, Christopher St. John.. Starring Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher, Chuck D, Alec Baldwin, Emi Sunshine, Emmylou Harris, James Carville, Mike Myers.
6.5 Gummi Bears (out of 10)