In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise

In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise
July 12, 2018

At his height, Elvis Presley captivated the nation; at his lowest, he died on his toilet hopped up on opiods.


Nancy Rooks was the housekeeper at Graceland when Elvis Presley died in 1977. Toward the end of Eugene Jarecki's documentary The King, she demonstrates the way to make one of his favorite meals, a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich on white bread.

"You put the butter in the skillet and do it like you do a grilled cheese sandwich," Rooks explains. This method is slightly different from the one his cook, the late Mary Jenkins, demonstrates in "The Burger and The King," a 1995 BBC program—she toasted the bread first before putting it in the buttered frying pan—but the message is still the same. Elvis gratified every one of his unhealthy habits until the cumulative effects killed him at 42.

Adding to the ongoing list of postmortem films that try to exhume and revivify Elvis—if not his actual corpse then his enduring mythology—Jarecki begins his version of the story by examining highlights from The King's biographical "reel."

He makes an impressionistic collage of those moments in Elvis' life we're overly familiar with—his first recording sessions at Sun Records in Memphis, those unruly hips that made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the army conscription, a meeting with his cat-eyed, future bride-to-be Priscilla and the arrival of his Machiavellian manager Col. Tom Parker. Jarecki pastes archival audio snippets of the dead pop star over countless still and moving images of Elvis surrounded by smothering fans, press and paparazzi. The director creates the illusion of bringing him temporarily back to life when he pairs this black and white imagery with his disembodied speaking voice.

The King also draws a sly, present-day parallel between fans lining up for selfies and the toxic quality of Elvis' supernova-like fame in the 1950s. But the director wants to accomplish something more than merely repeating the story of a single icon's highly publicized rise and fall. He interviews civilians, musicians and celebrities alike to hear their reminiscences about the man they knew, the Elvis they once fell in love with or the bloated showman they take pity on or mock. Those interviews are pointedly shot before the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Jarecki is intent on creating an Elvis-shaped prism through which entertainers like Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Chuck D, Mike Myers and a platitude-wielding Dan Rather can reflect on the American condition.

To visually unite this random assortment of talking heads, the filmmakers borrowed The King's 1963 silver Rolls Royce and drove it across the country. They followed the outlines of Elvis' career geographically. The camera travels from Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born, to Los Angeles for his sellout Hollywood phase and on to his final years in Las Vegas. Elvis' biography may provide context for those in the audience who know little to nothing about him, but it's ultimately beside the point in The King.

More than anything, Jarecki wants to make sense of what will become of the nation in a post-Obama America. So Elvis the man gets subsumed by "Elvis" the metaphor. The hip-hop artist Immortal Technique neatly sums up what he represents for the filmmaker: "If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we're about to OD." David Simon (The Wire) also suggests that driving an American car like a Cadillac would have made for a better symbol than a Rolls Royce. Jarecki acknowledges the limits of comparing Elvis' decline with that of America's by including comments like Simon's, or by the political pundit Van Jones, that question his approach to the subject—but he does get a lot of mileage from testing the idea.

Other artists express more sympathy for the isolated Elvis, for someone who lacked the imagination or willpower to do more than obey the Hollywood and record executives who signed his massive paychecks. Emmylou Harris poetically says, "He's almost like a Greek tragic figure, alone in that experience. Maybe he was The King, but he was doomed." Many of those interviewed begin to talk about Elvis but end up sounding like they're also talking about America. John Hiatt does this when he sits in the back seat of the Rolls. He gets choked up, and, unable to say a word, starts to cry.

Interested in becoming a MovieTimes Contributor?
DISNEY’S CHRISTOPHER ROBIN REVIEW

DISNEY’S CHRISTOPHER ROBIN REVIEW

Disney’s Christopher Robin, now playing in theaters, is the feel good film you didn’t know you needed. It’s a great film for kids, but even better for adults could use something a little calming.

Read more

'Crazy Rich Asians' is... OK...

'Crazy Rich Asians' is... OK...

The movie certainly deserves praise, but not for its plot

Read more

In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.

In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.

On 10th anniversary, 'The Dark Knight' returns to theaters, hits Netflix

Read more

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon buddy up for forgettable spy comedy.

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon buddy up for forgettable spy comedy.

Kate McKinnon can't save this crass, chick-buddy flick aimed at dudes

Read more

Glenn Close does her best, but 'The Wife' is little more than a prestigious soap opera.

Glenn Close does her best, but 'The Wife' is little more than a prestigious soap opera.

Male egos and the Pulitzer Prize are fodder for a sappy soap

Read more

Rock Rubber 45s - Inspiring autobiographical doc profiles Bobbito Garcia, a man at the nexus of cool

Rock Rubber 45s - Inspiring autobiographical doc profiles Bobbito Garcia, a man at the nexus of cool

Robert 'Bobbito' Garcia tells his story, in his words—with a little help from his celebrity friends—in 'Rock Rubber 45s,' which is screening at this year's San Jose Jazz Summer Fest.

Read more

'Searching' has an innovative approach to storytelling—the entire film takes place on computer screens.

'Searching' has an innovative approach to storytelling—the entire film takes place on computer screens.

A clever framing device surrounds a more conventional film

Read more

'Mission: Impossible—Fallout' is a knockout, excelling in its mix of trickery and brute force.

'Mission: Impossible—Fallout' is a knockout, excelling in its mix of trickery and brute force.

The latest in action film franchise is a nearly perfect, highly explosive delight

Read more

Two of Marilyn Monroe's most iconic films duel with a revival of two 007 films from 1983.

Two of Marilyn Monroe's most iconic films duel with a revival of two 007 films from 1983.

Marilyn Monroe, Sean Connery and Roger Moore all star in revivals at 3Below

Read more

In 'Eighth Grade,' early adolescent Kayla balances an awkward social life and highly polished social media presence.

In 'Eighth Grade,' early adolescent Kayla balances an awkward social life and highly polished social media presence.

Being stuck in the middle of junior high sucks, but it makes for a nostalgic story

Read more

In 'BlackkKlansman,' a secular Jew and Colorado Springs' first black cop team up to battle the KKK.

In 'BlackkKlansman,' a secular Jew and Colorado Springs' first black cop team up to battle the KKK.

Spike Lee's latest is a winner about an unlikely undercover mission

Read more

SKYSCRAPER (2018) REVIEW

SKYSCRAPER (2018) REVIEW

A SEMI-DECENT (IF NOT GENERIC) ACTION ENDEAVOR

Read more

Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska star in 'Damsel,' a black comedy masquerading as a Western.

Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska star in 'Damsel,' a black comedy masquerading as a Western.

Finally, a Western for the #MeToo era

Read more

Remarkable story of three brothers separated at birth has a dark twist

Remarkable story of three brothers separated at birth has a dark twist

THESE FAMOUS TRIPLETS DISCOVER LAYER UPON LAYER OF SURPRISES—NOT ALL OF THEM PLEASANT—IN THE NEW DOCUMENTARY ‘THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS’

Read more

In 'Blindspotting' the racial and economic divide tearing at the fabric of Oakland is explored through the friendship between a white man and a black man.

In 'Blindspotting' the racial and economic divide tearing at the fabric of Oakland is explored through the friendship between a white man and a black man.

Another film continues summer trend of highlighting inequality in Oakland

Read more

In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise

In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise

At his height, Elvis Presley captivated the nation; at his lowest, he died on his toilet hopped up on opiods.

Read more

In 'Puzzle,' a lonely housewife finds liberation through competitive jigsawing.

In 'Puzzle,' a lonely housewife finds liberation through competitive jigsawing.

A love story and family drama are pieced together in this jigsaw of a film

Read more

'The Meg' promises a far bigger bite than it can deliver

'The Meg' promises a far bigger bite than it can deliver

Where was the block-long shark we were promised? This thing's only 70 feet!

Read more