The life and death of Elvis Presley is hardly a novel movie subject, nor is the demise of the American dream. But “The King,” a documentary connecting the two rise-and-fall stories, makes for fresh, exciting viewing.
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki has combined a road trip with a celebrity biography to present his assertion that the story of Elvis Presley closely resembles that of postwar America.
In the film, which opens Friday at the Clay in The City, Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) drives across the nation in Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce, to sites pivotal in the pop-culture icon’s life. We visit Tupelo, Miss., where Presley grew up, along with Memphis, Hollywood, Las Vegas and Graceland, where Presley died in 1977, at age 42.
Along the way, Jarecki converses with musicians and other notables including James Carville, Emmylou Harris, Alec Baldwin and Ethan Hawke. Many appear in the backseat of the car, where they sing or talk about Elvis, fame or Trump.
Jarecki’s attempt to closely parallel Presley’s ascent to glory and degeneration into a bloated pill-addict with the story of the United States as a result of its own excesses doesn’t quite fly.
Additionally, Jarecki has cluttered the film with scraps of material whose reasons for inclusion aren’t always clear.
A montage, containing images of O.J., Katrina, 9/11 and other American trials, which unfolds while Elvis sings “Unchained Melody,” lacks the profundity it requires.
Yet Jarecki, rather remarkably, makes the messiness enjoyable. The film has more than enough spark and insight to satisfy as a cultural ride.
For a celebrity doc, the film is rare in its willingness to focus on its subject’s negative aspects. Presley is criticized as a cultural appropriator who skyrocketed to fame by singing black music for white audiences and giving the African American community nothing back.
The view’s not new, but figures like Chuck D — who questions why Presley is called the “king” when rock and roll pioneers like Little Richard receive less recognition — address it eloquently and pointedly.
Other comments involve Presley’s failure to support the civil-rights struggle and Presley’s wiliness to be used by the U.S. military machine as a publicity tool.
Additional worthy remarks come from Van Jones, Griel Marcus, an entertaining Mike Meyers, and, yes, Ashton Kutcher. When the latter, discussing fame, says he has received more attention than his professional accomplishments merit, you know this film, whatever its shortcomings, is unusual.
Another nugget moment occurs when David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” tells Jarecki that a Rolls-Royce, a foreign-made car, is a poor metaphor. The filmmaker should instead be driving one of Presley’s Cadillacs, he says. (The Rolls, by the way, breaks down at one point.)
Among the handful of documentaries currently playing, this one ranks with the best.
Starring: Chuck D, Alex Jones, Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke
Written by: Eugene Jarecki, Christopher St. John
Directed by: Eugene Jarecki
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Note: Jarecki is slated to appear at the Clay following 4 and 7 p.m. July 7 screenings.