Thursday, July 19, 2018

A doc about The King and his kingdom

If you are unable to see Elvis Presley as a symbol of everything that's both right and wrong with America, you may not get much out of The King, director Eugene Jarecki's far-reaching and often incisive documentary. Although Jarecki includes biographical information about Presley's rocket-ride of a life, he also uses Elvis as a launch point for larger observations about cultural appropriation, American bloat and other matters that, in sum, paint a portrait of American life on the downswing. Some of the interviews in The King take place in the back seat of Elvis's 1963 Rolls-Royce, a car that breaks down during Jarecki's travels, resulting in a bit of unplanned irony. Among the people Jarecki interviews, Ethan Hawke stands out as both knowledgeable and insightful. We also get music, including a show-stopping performance from EmiSunshine and the Rain. Jarecki bites off so much that he almost tears the film apart as we try — not always successfully — to digest its broad array of thematic elements. And, of course, it's all supported by the familiar arc of Elvis's story, a tale that follows him from dirt-poor beginnings in Tupelo, Miss. to the glitz and indulgence of Las Vegas. Rapper and producer Chuck D sounds one of the movie's strongest notes, noting that he’s not about to jump on the Elvis train. Elvis found his style by listening to black music, and many feel he never acknowledged the debt. These days, I'm up for some serious pessimism, so The King hooked me with its sweeping observations and culturual criticisms. Watching The King is a bit like sitting at the end of the bar while a slightly tipsy man rails about everything under the sun. The difference: Much of The King proves interesting and some it, even salient. That's because The King is as much about the kingdom as it is about Elvis’s pop-cultural royalty.

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