Rating: 3 stars
In the documentary “The King,” filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) holds up Elvis Presley as a prism through which he attempts to refract issues of racial, economic and class polarization. In a way, the movie has something in common with the Oscar-nominated “13th” (beyond the appearance of Van Jones, that is, who offers incisive commentary in each of the two films).
Both “13th” and “The King” connect seemingly unrelated dots to make their larger points. In the 2016 film, it’s about the complicated legacy of institutional racism bequeathed, ironically, by the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The new film uses the late singer as a metaphor for nothing less than the curdling of the American Dream.
It may be unfair to compare the two works, the first of which makes a rigorous historical argument and the second of which centers on rambling conversation. Those discussions — many of which take place in the back seat of a gray 1963 Rolls-Royce once owned by Presley — take place between Jarecki and such disparate celebrities as Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Emmylou Harris, Ashton Kutcher, Chuck D, Mike Myers and Ethan Hawke (the last of whom is listed as a consulting producer of “The King” and appears to be something of an amateur Elvis historian).
Like a twist on “Carpool Karaoke” or “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” only with musicians, “The King” also features a number of impromptu musical performances, in and around the Rolls, by such eclectic entertainers as EmiSunshine and the Rain, the Stax Music Academy All-Stars, Immortal Technique and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers.
It is, in short, very much a mixed bag.
But if it’s something of a stretch to draw comparisons between Ava DuVernay’s masterful film and Jarecki’s more poetic meditation on national character, it’s no more of one that Jarecki dares to make himself. At one point, the director uses archival film clips from the original “King Kong” to allude to the more obvious “king” of the title — Presley, that is, who is put forth as everything from a manifestation of tragic hubris and trapped celebrity to a walking, talking, hip-shaking embodiment of a uniquely American fantasy of power, sex and cross-cultural alchemy.
That’s a lot to pour into the vessel of one skinny white kid from Tupelo, Miss., who harnessed the idioms of black soul music and rural bluegrass to become an icon of — well, what exactly?
While “The King” never answers that question as neatly as some might like, it asks (and re-asks) it in ways that are never less than fascinating. To his credit, Jarecki includes a scene with a member of the film crew who questions “The King’s” very premise: that Presley is, in some way, both a paradigm for the American democratic experiment and a harbinger of the rise of Donald Trump. It is interesting, to say the least, that Baldwin, who is best known these days for his impersonation of the president on SNL, predicts, on camera, that Trump will never win the presidency. (The film was made before the election.)
Making Jarecki’s conversation with his crew member even more poignant is the fact that it takes place while the Rolls-Royce is being towed away for repairs. The fact that the luxury vehicle in which much of “The King” is set breaks down midway through the film serves as a powerful, if accidental, metaphor of its own. It’s one that speaks not just to Presley’s (and, arguably, America’s) fall from grace, but to the imperfections — and, yes, the lofty ambitions — of this strange, in some ways beautiful and in some ways overburdened little film.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language, some disturbing images and brief drug use. 109 minutes.