'The King' Comes to the Queen City: Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki Talks About His New Doc | Live Culture

'The King' Comes to the Queen City: Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki Talks About His New Doc


  • Courtesy of Eugene Jarecki
  • Eugene Jarecki
Talking Trump-era politics with Eugene Jarecki is probably the equivalent of playing chess with Boris Spassky or standing across a tennis court from Roger Federer. The field is not level. You are not remotely in the same league. And that’s what makes it so much fun.

The Peabody and Emmy award-winning director of such acclaimed documentaries as The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002), Why We Fight (2005), Reagan (2011) and The House I Live In (2012), the Mad River Valley resident has been named a Soros Justice Fellow at the Open Society Foundations and a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

But wait, there’s more. He’s also founder and executive director of the Eisenhower Project, a public policy organization dedicated to raising awareness of the forces shaping U.S. foreign and defense policy. In his downtime, Jarecki authors penetrating tomes such as 2008’s The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril — which has to be the funniest title ever for a book about the Iraq War.
“Combining the skills of journalist and poet,” Variety has declared, Jarecki “sets the gold standard for political docus.” High praise. And precisely the skill set required to unpack the implications of an America run by a guy who tweets on a golden toilet.

Jarecki’s latest documentary, The King, explores the connection between Elvis Presley and America on a road trip through the heartland. It opens today at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington, where Jarecki will do a Q&A on Sunday evening (more details below).

We spoke by phone about Presley, politics and more.

RICK KISONAK: Your work has traditionally provided insight into the lives and minds of historically significant figures like Kissinger, Eisenhower and Reagan. What inspired the pivot to Elvis Presley?

EUGENE JARECKI: The symbolism, the meaning of Elvis is almost inextricable from the meaning of the American dream itself. When I was growing up, Elvis was part and parcel of it. As I got older and started to rethink the American dream, with its undertow, complications and shortcomings, Elvis naturally rose into the same reflective lens.

RK: You suggest his rise and decline are a metaphor for what’s happened to this country.

EJ: Right, though with a real love, I guess a tough love. Tough love asks questions and seeks the best for the one you love.

RK: I love the whole concept of The King. Who would ever have imagined you’d make a movie starring a used car?

EJ: Ha, well, originally we were just making a film that was a political reflection about a man and the country he left behind, about the allegoric parallels between Elvis and the USA — in the way he struggled with premature power, as we do; the way he developed all kinds of fissures and fractures in his identity, as we have. But that film had no car.

RK: So how did his 1963 Rolls Royce come into the picture?

EJ: A member of my team told me Elvis’ Rolls was about to be auctioned, and a light bulb went off. I realized we could make the Great American Road Movie here — starring Elvis Presley, no less. We could follow his ghost across the country and visit the places where he once laid his head.

RK: Was that in the budget?

EJ: God, no. I had to ask whether the company behind the film would step up and purchase the car for it, with the idea that at the end, if I didn’t accidentally drive it off the Grand Canyon, we’d sell it again. Thankfully, they went for it.

RK: The folks who come along for the ride are a fabulous, thoughtful variety pack of humans: Emmylou Harris, James Carville, Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, John Hiatt, Greil Marcus, EmiSunshine & the Rain, even Burlington’s own Kat Wright, among others.

EJ: It is unabashedly a musical road trip in Elvis’ car. But the musical side of it is a way for people to join the journey and not be in an eggheady documentary.

RK: That’s a powerful moment when John Hiatt climbs in, realizes where he is and dissolves in tears.

EJ: You know, when you’re working on a film, you quickly learn whether you’re blowing against the wind or finding kindred spirits. When John had that reaction, I immediately started to understand just how powerful this vessel was going to be. People were going to be asked to look at this country through the eyes of someone they loved and lost. Elvis is part of our DNA.

RK: That’s some sad, sobering footage of him toward the end. I hadn’t seen images from that era in a while.

EJ: There’s a crucial cautionary tale in the way Elvis died at 42 buried in all the seductions that had been thrust upon him. His demise makes him very much a canary in the coal mine of the exact tragedy we’re experiencing right now. He was just, as ever, way ahead of his time.

RK: I read that candidate Trump wanted to sit in the Rolls but you felt you couldn’t do that to Elvis’ car.

EJ: I don’t use the name of this rapacious president. I don’t want to plug his brand. He’s the embodiment of everything that destroyed Elvis Presley and which will destroy America as a republic if we don’t rise up to demand that the standards of this country be shifted back toward our first principles.

RK: He appears to prefer walking back to shifting back. Seen any signs of hope lately?

EJ: On the watch of this president, we’ve seen the birth of some of the most significant social movements of my lifetime, out of repulsion at him. #MeToo, Time’s Up, the Parkland students, mayoral uprisings in the sanctuary cities, protests to block the administration’s decision to create juvenile concentration camps in this country. Americans who were asleep are suddenly awake.

The King opens on Friday, July 20, at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington (showtimes here). Eugene Jarecki and performers Kat Wright and Maggie Clifford will do a Q&A on Sunday, July 22, after the 6:45 p.m. show. As Loveful Heights, Wright and Clifford will do a show that night at 9 p.m. at Radio Bean. $5.

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