Tuesday 2 October 2018

THE KING review

Directed by Eugene Jarecki and produced by Steven Soderbergh, this new documentary travels around some of the key places in Elvis Presley's life, asking a number of well known faces their opinion of him and his legacy and exploring his celebrity as a metaphor for the story of America.

Documentaries about Elvis must number into the hundreds, all treading over the same highs and lows as the previous. It's refreshing then that The King isn't really a film about Elvis at all. Sure, it's called The King and Elvis is the central figure in the film, but Jarecki, most known for his deep dives into political and social injustices Why We Fight and The House I Live In, goes out of his way to explore beyond the boundaries of that one man. Using an old Rolls Royce that Elvis once owned as a time capsule/time machine for a number of fans and detractors, Jarecki captures some candid and controversial opinions about the man they called The King and the country he called home.

The participants range from those closest to him ("Elvis was my best friend. I don't know if I was his best friend, but some days I was"), to child stars like Emi Sunshine, raised in his long reaching shadow, to the incredibly honest Chuck D who, in a frank discussion of Elvis's racial appropriation, says that Elvis's success was down to him "selling a black style with a white face". Ethan Hawke is another famous face who is honest about his own wavering admiration of Elvis, along with Ashton Kutcher whose personal reflection on the nature of celebrity is interrupted by celeb spotters passing by on a tour.

Spiked with a number of musical performances, this candid commentary which is presented fairly and even-handedly by Jarecki, is sure to ruffle some feathers among the hardcore Presley fans who, even in 2018, easily number in their millions. The question surely is, on a scale of casual appreciation to Vegas-era jumpsuit owner, what level of Elvis fan will this film appeal to? To be honest, although it may not be saying anything that hasn't been said before and is not the muck raking it first seems, this appreciation/vilification will anger hardcore fans, even if their voice is represented in the film. So why make such a brutally honest film? Well, Jarecki is only mildly concerned with telling Elvis's story. It's the important cultural and political milestones that he lived through, and the current state of America that Elvis hasn't witnessed that are Jarecki's focus.

Chief among the political milestones mentioned is the civil rights movement that, as evidenced here, Elvis stayed noticeably quiet on. Given his musical tastes and clear appreciation of black culture, some of the commentators don't hold back on chastising Presley for not using his influence for good when it mattered the most. Filmed during the run up to the US election, it is obvious that the narrative of this film has been found in the editing process, post November 2016, with many choice soundbites ringing as loud as one of Elvis's greatest hits, "If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we're about to O.D.". Another statement (that he should have known would come back to haunt him) comes from Alec Baldwin, who whilst riding in the back of Elvis's Rolls Royce through the streets of NYC, firmly states that "Trump is not going to win". The duality of Elvis's Las Vegas residency leading to his demise and Trump's rise through Las Vegas Casino and hotel ownership is not lost on this film.

Elvis is undoubtedly a key totem and as American as apple pie and Route 66, but despite many troubling parallels it's not always the easiest sell to claim that his charismatic rise and eventual bloated fall are indicative of America's ongoing issues. There's a sense that the film is aware that it's pushing the boundaries of what it can achieve with this conceit, but you have to commend Jarecki for exploiting and exploring the most obvious parallels, delivered with a wink towards the camera that seems to hope that America can learn from the tragic lessons left behind by one of its most famous sons.

A compelling and well crafted piece of filmmaking, The King is an Elvis documentary that's not just for purists; in fact, an ambivalent view of the man and his legacy may give you tickets front row and centre for this show.


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