The King is a documentary about the rise and fall of Elvis, as a metaphor for the decline of America over the last half of the 20th century to the present day. Director Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) somehow managed to get access to Elvis’s Rolls Royce, and goes on a road trip around the US. Often the film crew is driving along Highway 66, as did Elvis many times, picking up various passengers along the way. Most of the interviews take place in the car, including people like Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Roseanne Cash, Chuck D and several of Elvis’s surviving Memphis Mafia associates. And of course Greil Marcus is in there as well (it wouldn’t be right to have an Elvis documentary without him).
Through discussing Elvis and the political climate, rock and roll, race and cultural appropriation across the decades, the story comes right up to date—the film was shot during the election, and the shadow of Trump hangs over the whole proceedings. It’s an excellent documentary, in which Elvis comes off as a somewhat tragic figure who was manipulated by a manager who often prevented him from trying things that he would have wanted to.
It’s a sympathetic portrayal, although of course there are critical things to say. It’s very well made, and I would say that although Jarecki is not yet as well known as Errol Morris (who is the executive producer of The King), he’s one of the best documentary filmmakers around, and deserves a little bit more credit—especially for the masterpiece on the US drug war The House I Live In.
Some of the interviews seem a little random. I didn’t really think they needed Ashton Kutcher or Mike Myers here (no doubt the choice was based on who they could get), it would have been more interesting to get someone like Chris Isaak, Nicolas Cage or David Lynch people who had more of a real connection to Elvis. The schedule must have been a nightmare, which is probably why it took so long to be finished.
The King will play on TV in the States, given investment in the project by PBS, but it has had a theatrical release as well. I’m sure it will end up on streaming services at some point, but the DVD is worth grabbing to see a unique view on what’s gone wrong in the US after the last 60 years. It would make an interesting double bill with the HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher, which is more about the music than Elvis’s place in culture.
The disc includes about 30 minutes of deleted scenes, but it’s mainly B-roll footage from inside the car, and felt a bit pointless. I would have preferred to see longer-form interviews. The trailer is also included.