Film Review: The King

Not your dad's Elvis. Or anyone else's either.
Specialty Releases

Elvis Presley died in 1977, well before most filmgoers today were born. For over 20 years he had been an inescapable icon, someone who redefined success in music, movies and television. And yet barely into his 40s he turned into a kind of John Wayne of rock, a bloated, out-of-touch relic rejected by the cultural elite.

The King tries to reclaim Presley by untangling the myths surrounding him. But with its dubious assertions and utter lack of empathy for its subject and his milieu, all The King ends up doing is further cloud our understanding of the musician.

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, a Peabody Award winner for documentaries like Why We Fight and The House I Live In, builds The King around impressions gathered as he tours the U.S. in a Rolls Royce once owned by Presley. The Rolls gives Jarecki an excuse to interview passengers ranging from musicians to political pundits to hitchhikers.

Jarecki and crew drive through the major checkpoints in Presley's life, like his humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi; the housing project where he lived in Memphis; New York City and Nashville, where he recorded his biggest hits; Detroit, because the auto industry or something; Hollywood, Las Vegas, the desert surrounding Route 66, and on and on.

For the most part it's a solemn ride filled with abstract close-ups, arty aerial shots, trite archival footage and belabored accounts of engine problems. Jarecki hits his points with a sledgehammer. The American Dream is dead. Elvis squandered his talent and died. The Vietnam War was bad. Drugs are bad. Racism is bad. Whatever we thought was good about the past is wrong.

Making these claims are celebrities who may or may not know what they're talking about. Like Mike Meyers on America's moving-image hegemony, Ethan Hawke spouting rumors and gossip about events in Presley's life, Van Jones repeating the canard that Presley stole his music from African-Americans. (Among Presley's earliest recordings were covers of pop crooner Dean Martin, country superstar Hank Snow and Bill Monroe's bluegrass hit "Blue Moon of Kentucky.")

Thank goodness David Simon (of "The Wire" fame) is around to note that all music in fact is a form of cultural appropriation. (Let's be blunt: All art is theft.) Simon also calls out Jarecki's misguided use of a Rolls instead of the Cadillacs Presley adored. Others aren't afraid to mock the director. As a road crew member puts it, "I don't know what the hell you're doing with this movie."

What the hell Jarecki is doing is assembling contentious lies, rumors and factoids about Presley, then marrying them to news footage of lynchings, the KKK, atom bomb explosions and anything else that might make the singer look bad. It's a Sundance-blessed version of fake news, snark not insight.

The single worst element of The King may be its music. Love him or hate him, Presley had a magnificent voice. So why is his first song here a grotesque remix of "A Little Less Conversation" released 25 years after his death? Why does Jarecki include so many crappy filler songs from largely forgotten musicals? What's the point in trying to single out Presley's worst performances?

If you'd like to watch people who don’t know any better make guesses about who Elvis might have been and what he might have represented, The King will be right up your alley. Especially if you don't actually like music.

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