There aren't many documentaries that see Elvis Presley as the bruised soul of America through fun times and bum times. In fact, there’s only one. Formerly called Promised Land, the doc – a spellbinder – is now known as The King, and filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In, Why We Fight) had the risky but totally riveting idea of taking Presley's 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V and outfitting it with cameras. The purpose being to drive the customized car cross-country to the places the King traveled, from New York to L.A., from home bases in Tupelo, Miss. and Memphis, Tenn. (hello, Graceland) to Las Vegas, the capital city of money and glitz of the late-career Elvis (This where he performed "Unchained Medley" – though he was anything but free.) Can we learn something about his – and our – country by retracing his steps? Does the young man who sang "That's All Right, Mama" represent the 20th century promise of a new age? Does the fat Elvis, the one who died on the toilet in 1977, represent the Trump era?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. With Jarecki behind the wheel, musicians such as Emmylou Harris, M. Ward, John Hiatt and former Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana hop into the backseat, making and talking music. Riders on the passenger side include Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher and James Carville, all of who meditate, and only occasionally bloviate, about how the man defined America. There are arguments about how the young Elvis betrayed his early potential and the degree to which his success depended on the appropriation of black culture. Little Richard and Chuck Berry failed to get rich on the music they performed first; Elvis did. How come Muhammed Ali went to jail for refusing to fight while the rock star did military service far removed from danger? And just who were the puppetmasters, besides the infamous Col. Tom Parker, pulling the King’s strings? Did Elvis the sellout, making forgettable music and movies to fuel the company store, reflect our own readiness to break faith for profit? Were his addictions to fame, food, drugs, money and compromise really our addictions?
Jarecki does not paint a pretty picture. And why should he? Elvis had his critics – Public Enemy's Chuck D recalls his rap from "Fight the Power" about how the King "never meant shit to me." By contrast, rock critic Greil Marcus argues for the King's lasting relevance as an artist. Talking heads abound, including church-going, working-class families, Elvis' best friend Jerry Schilling – everyone from comedian Mike Myers to The Wire creator David Simon, Van Jones to biographer Peter Guralnick has something to add. Interspersed with archival clips of Elvis at work and play are glimpses of Trump on the 2016 campaign trail, pushing for a wall to keep out “bad hombres” and winning support from the poverty-strapped Elvis fans.
The Roman Empire had nothing on the decline and fall of the good old U.S. of A. And hovering above it all is the lonesome, alienated Tupelo boy who found a plaintive kinship with the blues, then transformed into a bloated parody of his country's obsessions. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when this random, scattershot, overreaching movie stops spinning its wheels and starts flying on a cumulative power that floors you. But when it happens – kapow! By the end we’re looking at Elvis, America and ourselves with new eyes and wondering, once again, if the truth really can set us free.