Documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes on, as his latest subject, the life, and rise and fall, of Elvis. From his birth, into a family of modest means in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, through to his untimely death in 1977, he was the epitome of the American Dream. That life, and the life of America during that life, is told in great detail in “The King.”
Laura's Review: A-
Traveling in Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls-Royce, cowriter (with Christopher St. John)/director Eugene Jarecki ("The House I Live In") correlates the man's rise and fall to the country he became such a potent symbol of in "The King." Jarecki's documentary is a masterfully constructed, elegiac ode to a career and country that began with great dreams only to lose its way. Elvis Presley was the perfect example of the American Dream, a poor Southern boy who became rich and famous but to what end? Traveling to New York, Tupelo, Memphis, Las Vegas and stretches of the iconic route 66, Jarecki talks with ordinary folk, celebrities and musicians about Elvis and life in today's United States. When stationary, Jarecki uses Presley's Rolls like a photo booth, passengers climbing in the back to opine on various subjects, political commentator James Carville noting that America 'tasted different' after Presley hit the scene. We are treated to the jaw dropping talent of 13 year-old country music star EmiSunshine, sure to get a career boost from this film. Ethan Hawke provides some of the most thoughtful commentary, noting how Presley's poor choices always revolved around going for the larger paycheck and that the country originally defined by its democracy is more readily associated with capitalism today. Capitalism and race are the two most prominent driving factors here. In Tupelo, Mississippi, whose economy revolves around Presley, a tour guide at Elvis's birthplace explains that she cannot find work and would be on the streets were it not for the military. In Memphis, where East meets West and North meets South, we're told of all the city had to offer back when Elvis came to town, just when Sam Phillips was trying to figure out how to bring the black music of his Sun Records to the masses. Elvis was his answer, but while some black musicians have no problem with Elvis, others, as expressed in Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power,' thought he appropriated their music without doing anything for their community. Then there was Colonel Tom Parker, the carny man who took control of Presley's career, bleeding him for as much as 50% of his earnings when 10-15% was the norm. Parker got Elvis onto a bigger label with RCA, but as one wit notes, the sound was slicker but he lost the 'roll' of rock 'n roll, the very thing that gave the music its danger. Parker's quest for wealth resulted in the sidelining of Presley's career into one nondescript Hollywood film after another. When Presley wanted to get back on the road and make music, Parker, who unbeknownst to Presley was an undocumented immigrant afraid of leaving the country, convinced him to take a Vegas residency instead. The grueling two-shows-a-day schedule led Presley to pills while the upscale Vegas audience demoralized him. The analogy to the fate of the American worker is abundantly clear. There is copious footage of Elvis performances. We hear from Priscilla how she finally 'got it' seeing Elvis performing live for the first time. Later his last, long-term girlfriend, Linda Thompson, expresses shock at his appearance in his last television special eight months after their breakup. As Elvis's Rolls passes through the American landscape, sometimes with hitchhikers along for the ride, we see great beauty, but also depressed areas where hope has gone to die. "The King" is a unique, sobering work, a 'lament for something slipping away.' Grade:
Robin's Review: B+
“What is this film about?” That question is asked, during the course of “The King,” by the director himself. It is a very good question and one that you must find out for yourself. But, in the meantime, I have some reflections about this grand opus to Elvis. First off, and as you would expect, this is the life history of Elvis, his hard early times, finding his voice and breaking through as the first white man, in the music business, “with the Negro soul and feel.” Remember, this is 1953 and Jim Crow reigned in the South – racial boundaries back then, even for music, were not easily crossed. But, cross them Elvis did. This informative uber-biography follows the fame that was spawned at a little recording studio in Memphis called Sun Records, owned by Sam Phillips. Phillips not only launched the King’s career, he also was the catalyst to the musical rise of a few others, like Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Then, the real fame hits Elvis and we know how that ends. The details of this biopic will please the Elvis fans (which still exist in great numbers), and non-fans, too. If Jarecki and his team had just given us this thorough look into Elvis’s rise and fall…and fall…and fall, “The King” would be a good documentary. But, there is much more to it than a bio. It also reflects American life during Elvis’s own, with all the racial hatred and bigotry, its wars and social upheaval, and the rise of modern media and the entertainment industry. Remember, we had a tech revolution back in the 1950s - the TV. This aspect of “The King” could have been another documentary entirely. The only problem I have with “The King” is, during the latter third, Jarecki turns his mirror on the current political state of affairs in our country. It is not that what Jarecki conveys about the now is not interesting. It is, but I do not want a reminder of our current set of woes – divisiveness, hate, separating families, pushing away our friends and embracing our foes. I get enough of that on the news every day.