Taken at face value it’s hard to imagine a film that prominently features Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce as its main character being very interesting – not to mention the jarring fact that Elvis was mostly known as a Cadillac man. But there’s much more happening in Eugene Jareki’s brilliant THE KING, which may be the most surprisingly profound documentary film of the year.
In fact, we learn very little about the 1963 Rolls Royce Phantom that’s featured throughout. There is no mention of where it was purchased or how it fit into the rest of Presley’s well-known vehicle collection – that’s left for another movie. In THE KING this is a vehicle of a different kind, one that explores the tensions that exist in the pursuit of the American Dream. And as the light sliver Phantom travels from Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi though Memphis, Nashville and beyond we see this story unfold through the eyes and voices of those who inhabit its backseat. From James Carville to Ethan Hawke, Chuck D to Dan Rather, strippers in Las Vegas to a gospel choir in Tennessee, everyone has the opportunity to reflect upon what Elvis Presley’s America looks like now 50 years since his famous ’68 comeback.
The arc of Elvis’ life and career is well-known to most, and we get to experience it in some rarely seen archival footage and interviews with those who knew him best – guitar player Scotty Moore, Sun Records’ Jerry Philips, even Elvis’ Graceland housekeeper who made his infamous peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But it quickly becomes clear Jareki’s intent is to use the Elvis timeline as a metaphor for America – how its rise to power, cultural influence, lust for money, struggle with image, fixation on Hollywood, battle with addiction and ultimate demise may more closely reflect our own national storyline than we’d like to admit.
Two parts of the film reveal this most profoundly. One is when singer-songwriter John Hiatt sits down in the backseat of the Rolls Royce, clearly overwhelmed by the opportunity and magnitude of what the Phantom represents. But it’s not his reverence for the ‘king of rock and roll’ that provokes his tears, but rather the reality of how “trapped” as Hiatt says, Elvis was for much of his life. Later, in a section recorded before the last presidential election, Alec Baldwin predicts from the backseat parked in New York City that we have nothing to worry about and Trump is not going to win – both echoing and foreshadowing our political past and future.
THE KING also benefits from a pacing structure anchored by a unique American score – featuring a few well-known musical troubadours performing from inside the Rolls Royce like Hiatt and M Ward as well as an array of lesser known talents including rapper and activist Immortal Technique, 13-year old Appalachian prodigy Emile Sunshine and Memphis’ STAX Music Academy Choir – squeezed into the back-seat and singing from one another’s laps no less. It’s this backbeat of American music that both reflects the heritage that influenced Presley himself and points to the diversity we find in American musical culture today.
While the film exposes some of the challenges we face it does also point to the hope that Elvis left us with, which despite his excesses and failures is why he still celebrated today. His voice and image became a symbol of America in all of its beauty and opportunity. And for better or worse that ‘63 Rolls Royce serves as a reminder that we’re never too old or too broken to propel ourselves forward, to ignite wonder and nostalgia, and invite friends and strangers alike to sit down for a minute and enjoy the ride.
-- Andy Peterson