What's more fascinating than watching a true artist do what they do, following the development of their style and the evolution of their vision? If your medulla is oblongata, I don't see how it gets better. In five years, the Beatles somehow got from "She Loves You" to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Since 2002, Eugene Jarecki has been thinking out loud about what's gone awry with the great American experiment.
His films comprise an intellectually rigorous record of his investigations into everything from the military-industrial complex (Why We Fight, 2005) to the commercialization of the criminal justice system (The House I Live In, 2012). While his latest continues that inquiry, it also marks a milestone. With The King, Jarecki debuts a new aesthetic and attains a stunningly upgraded level of artistry.
As much as any filmmaker, he created the blueprint for the modern political documentary. You know: meticulously researched thesis, archival footage, graphs, expert talking heads. I imagine any form eventually feels constraining to an artist whose gifts are still multiplying and expanding. Here, Jarecki leaves all that behind for something as thrillingly unexpected as John Lennon following "In My Life" with "A Day in the Life."
OK, enough Beatle analogies. This is a movie about Elvis Presley. Well, Elvis and the American dream. Elvis as metaphor. His rise and decline as an allegory for the American trajectory. It's safe, I think, to say few filmmakers are visionary enough to conceive of a project this ambitious, much less pull it off. Jarecki pulls it off in spades.
The star of The King is a used car: the Rolls Royce Phantom V Presley had custom made (Blaupunkt Köln radio, AC, bar and microphone) in 1963. The instant the director realized he could cast the vehicle, his themes and theories crystallized into a deceptively simple plan. Forty years after Elvis' death, he would drive across the country through the places that made Presley who he was, pick up interesting, insightful passengers and emerge with a meaningful tapestry of images, music, impressions and comments on our national moment.
Among those along for the ride are James Carville, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Greil Marcus, Van Jones, Chuck D and John Hiatt, who dissolves in tears seconds after sitting in the back seat, nearly wrecking a perfectly good guitar. What Jarecki achieves by weaving together the elegantly lensed picture's strands transcends the perceptive or thought provoking. It approaches the psychedelic. I've never seen anything like it. Here's a sampling:
"Forty years ago," Carville muses at a burger joint, "a guy could come out of high school, get a job at the plant ... send kids to college. That was the American dream. It's gone."
"You didn't see Elvis in the middle of no civil rights marches," Chuck D reminds Jarecki vis-à-vis Presley's musical debt to black culture.
"Think about the alternative Elvis," challenges Van Jones. "Imagine him marching with Dr. King. Marlon Brando marched."
"Elvis at every turn picked money," Hawke observes. "'There's more money at RCA [than at Sun Records].' 'It's the biggest movie deal ever; let's take it.' 'Should I take the biggest offer a performer's ever had?' — in Vegas. And where did it get him? Dead and fat on the toilet at 42."
One thing on which everyone in the film agrees is that American democracy, while not dead, is decidedly in the toilet. "Suspicious Minds" control the White House. The 1 percent gets fatter as more and more live "In the Ghetto." Vote. March. Something, the King decrees. "It's Now or Never."