In one of the first scenes in the indie documentary The King, a voice asks “What is wrong with America?” while showing a closeup of Elvis Presley in the 1970s, who is sitting in the back of a limo being whisked away from his concert.
This implication sets the tone for the film. The King tries to use Elvis as a metaphor for all that is wrong with America today, and the decades leading up to this point. However, no matter what your political views are, there is a gross disservice being done to history in regards to Elvis Presley.
It’s hard to understand what director Eugene Jarecki is really trying to say in his documentary linking The King of Rock and Roll with President Donald Trump. About 80% of the film focuses on Presley’s career and life, from his birth in Tupelo, Mississippi to his later years in Vegas, with the remaining 20% showing glimpses of American history from the past 50 years.
In a special Q&A screening in Los Angeles on June 30 where the director was interviewed by famed actor/director, Rob Reiner, Jarecki said his film “could not be a more loving portrait of Elvis.” Maybe he didn’t watch the same movie that I did, since I found that most of the film focused on pointing out Presley’s flaws.
The beginning of the film did include some rare footage of Elvis in his early career and did a good job of documenting Presley’s rise to fame in the 1950s. The film features interviews with many of Presley’s friends including Jerry Schilling, George Klein, Larry Geller, Linda Thompson, Nancy Rooks and Sam Phillips son, Jerry. Also interviewed are historians like Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus, and celebrities Mike Myers, James Carville, former Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, Emmylou Harris, Alec Baldwin, Dan Rather, Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke.
However, once Presley enters the army and then leaves 2 years later, the film seems to pounce on Elvis emphasizing all the familiar negative themes – his prescription drug problem, the long list of bad films he made, his endless desire to make more money, how Colonel Parker took advantage of him, how he got fat in the 70s and his unfortunate demise at the age of 42.
One reviewer put it this way: “The film dwells not on the King’s hits but on all the career decisions he made that seemed to defy common sense, that slowly led to his undoing.”
As a result, the second half of the film follows the standard tear down of The King of Rock and Roll which can be summed up by John Lennon’s harsh statement: “Elvis died when he went into the army.” The classic rock fans of the 60s and beyond believe that the only good work Elvis Presley ever did was in his early days at Sun Records and they immediately dismiss the rest of his career.
As I tried to explain to the director at the Q&A, there were complex reasons behind the decisions Elvis made in his career after 1960. For example, Presley moved away from his 50s sound of rock and roll and started doing music like pop ballads and gospel because he was more passionate about that type of music. Rock and roll was not necessarily Presley’s first love, as I recently documented in my book.
Also, Elvis tried to do more meaningful films in the early 1960s like Wild in the Country and Flaming Star, but since they weren’t as profitable as his musically-themed films, the studios would not support any more of these “serious” films.
Unfortunately, The King movie focuses on what the filmmaker and celebrities perceive as “failures” in Presley’s career, mistakenly blaming the decisions Presley made on his supposed desire for money and pills. With the exception of the ’68 Comeback Special, the film does not offer an alternative viewpoint showing that it wasn’t all black and white and that Elvis had a lot of success in those years.
These misguided stereotypes of Elvis are pushed even further with the topic of cultural appropriation. Political commentator Van Jones and Public Enemy rapper Chuck D are interviewed about the perception among some that Presley basically stole black music, made a fortune off of it and never gave black artists credit, which is totally untrue.
The worst part of the film is when they play the verse from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” video which conveys that Elvis was not a hero to the black community and that he was a racist.
What is not shown in the film is that years after that song came out, Chuck D later clarified his meaning behind those lyrics. In 2002, Chuck D “acknowledged that Elvis was held in high esteem by black musicians, and that Elvis himself admired black musical performers. Chuck D stated that the target of his Elvis line was the white culture which hailed Elvis as a ‘King’ without acknowledging the black artists that came before him.”
Surprisingly, in the film, Chuck D sides with Elvis in that he should not be accused of cultural appropriation, just like a black person who plays classical music should not be accused. However, his lyrics about Elvis being a racist were never addressed in the film. Not addressing this could leave people that don’t know much about Elvis to believe that statement.
Meanwhile, only a vague connection is conveyed between Elvis and Trump. At the end, a statement by Ethan Hawke seems like it is trying to sum up the theme of the film when he says that (paraphrasing) Elvis chose money at every turn in his career and that’s why he ended up fat and dead on the toilet.
The fact that Hawke declares that Elvis was all about money is misguided and incorrect. Elvis died with hardly any money in the bank because he gave away endless gifts to his friends and even strangers. He did not care about money per se, but rather how he could share it with the people around him. He also made career decisions along the way for additional reasons besides money. To make a blanket statement like that is really an insult to Elvis and his legacy.
Yes, there were some positive moments in the film about Elvis. However, when the negatives were so harsh and unjustified, it left a bad taste in this Elvis fan’s mouth. Watch at your own risk.
Note: The King is currently playing in a limited run in theaters and will be shown later this year on PBS’ Independent Lens.