The King

 

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Part biography and part social comment, this is a strikingly original work.

 
King, The

  

Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In was one of the best documentaries of 2012 and his talent is further confirmed by this new work. That is particularly so in its first third which on every level including photography, editing and pacing is filmmaking of the very highest order. The title, The King, is a reference to Elvis Presley and before seeing the film I had gained the impression that Jarecki was linking the rise and decline of the singer with what he sees as a similar pattern in the life of America itself. However, while there is some truth in that, it is something of a simplification.

 

Opening here by chance in the same week as BlacKkKlansman, we clearly have two new releases in which past events are presented in such a way as to make relevant critical comments on America under President Trump. In the case of The King, this is made possible by offering a biographical portrait of Presley which, while incorporating historical footage and recordings, features present day material by showing those commenting on Presley being driven around America in the singer’s 1963 Rolls Royce. This puts us in the Trump era while tracking the past as the car moves on from Presley’s birthplace, Tupelo, via such key spots in his life as Memphis, Nashville, New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas before ending up at Graceland.

 

The film definitely sees Trump as a nadir in America’s history, but the film’s social analysis goes beyond that. Born into a poor family in 1935, Presley’s swift rise to fame meant that he appeared to be a perfect example of the American Dream, but Jarecki’s film questions if the dream was ever a reality. By embracing black music, Presley was a rebel and one with a real talent, but he took off because for mass popularity a black sound needed a white face. Before long, exploited by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, Presley became a brand promoted for profit and fashioned by those in New York. Jarecki sees him as a member of what had become a capitalist country refashioned during his military service into a figurehead for imperialism and subsequently someone whose attraction to stardom led to Hollywood watering him down in a series of valueless films. After he broke away from that, Presley was kept in the USA by the Colonel despite his wish to see more of the world and his mecca became a place where only money counts: Las Vegas. That setting encouraged drug taking and his last self-destructive phase by which stage many could no longer recognise in him the man they had once known.

 

Thus American society is shown as betraying its democratic ideals and standing as the enemy throughout with Presley as one of its victims. These two aspects blend perfectly for some time, but in the film’s middle stages the fit is less adroit with some of the references to Trump seeming more forced (for that matter while one welcomes some film clips incorporated we do get rather too much of King Kong!). But, if Jarecki’s parallels are occasionally questionable and the film never quite recaptures the perfection of its first part, this piece is always stimulating and it offers a balanced portrait of Presley recognising his gifts, questioning his reserve over showing support for coloured rights and ultimately seeing him as a tragic figure thanks largely to the society in which he lived.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, Dan Rather, Linda Thompson, Alec Baldwin, Chuck D., Emmylou Harris, James Carville, Ashton Kutcher, Jerry Schilling, Rosanne Cash, Van Jones, John Hiatt, EmiSunshine.

 

Dir Eugene Jarecki, Pro Christopher Frierson, Georgina Hill, Eugene Jarecki, David Kuhn and Christopher St. John, Screenplay Eugene Jarecki and Christopher St. John, Ph Tom Bergmann, Christopher Frierson and Étienne Sauret, Ed Simon Barker, Alex Bingham, Èlia Gasull Balada and Laura Israel, Music Antony Genn, Robert Miller and Martin Slattery.

 

Charlotte Street Films/Ghost in the Machine Films/Back Up Media-Dogwoof.
107 mins. Germany/USA. 2017. Rel: 24 August 2018. Cert. 15.