Documentaries about the current state of America, as good as some of them are, often have the effect of news headlines: They come and go, leaving a slight blur. But “Promised Land” isn’t like other politically and socially inflamed documentaries. Written and directed by Eugene Jarecki (“The House I Live In,” “Why We Fight”), it’s a meditation on the current American crisis (and if you don’t think we’re in one, you should probably stop reading now) that’s built around a revisionist portrait of Elvis Presley. The two elements — America and Elvis — come together in ticklish, surprising ways that expand and delight your perceptions.
If “Promised Land” has a thesis, the short version of it — it’s declared in the opening 15 minutes — is that America has entered its Fat Elvis period. We’re bloated, addicted, going through the motions, coasting on our legend, courting self-destruction. Yet the question the film asks is how, exactly, we got there, and Jarecki attempts to answer it by taking every aspect of Elvis’s life and career — the kitsch along with the glory, not just the greatness but the betrayal of greatness — and holding it up to the light, as an essential facet of his being. Elvis, by the end, threw away more or less everything he had (his entire life had become a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich), yet that, according to Jarecki, wasn’t a fluke — it grew out of his insatiable American hunger, which consumed the better part of him. He didn’t just lose his majesty, he lost his faith, and so, in many ways, have we.
In “Promised Land,” Jarecki takes a road tour of America in a 1963 Rolls Royce that was originally owned by Elvis. He stops in cities that figured prominently in the King’s life — Tupelo, Memphis, New York, Las Vegas — and he invites a roster of bracingly fresh country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll musicians to play songs in the back seat. The movie has the feel of an odyssey that’s also a party, as if Michael Moore had veered off an exit ramp and into the mad carnival of pop culture. Jarecki talks to locals who are visibly desperate, with less hope for the future than they once had; he also talks to James Carville, Van Jones, Ethan Hawke, Emmylou Harris, Dan Rather, Mike Myers, and Chuck D, who famously rapped the lines, “Elvis was a hero to most but he,/Never meant shit to me” (though he seems a lot less angry about it now). The commentators evoke the mystery of how Elvis burned like a match head and then, over time, became less than.
Ethan Hawke, who as always proves to be a highly perceptive observer, targets the moment when Elvis went into the Army, because he says “It started the lying,” creating an image for Elvis that sold him as something he wasn’t. Then, of course, there were the defanged Elvis movies that Hollywood churned out like processed dessert cakes. Their utter awfulness — with rare exceptions, of course, like “Viva Las Vegas” — is a cheeseball joke that extends back half a century, but “Promised Land” makes the point that Elvis, once he signed his deal with the devil — i.e., Col. Tom Parker, his manager/Svengali/slave driver — wound up attached to the most lucrative movie contract in history. He effectively gave up his art for the money, and Jarceki rightly sees something emblematic in that.
In the early ’80s, a raging battle about Elvis got played out in the arena of rock criticism, and in the culture at large. Greil Marcus, in his landmark 1975 book “Mystery Train,” had made the case that Elvis wasn’t just a legendary rock & roller but a quintessentially grand and timeless American artist. The scope of his music — its joy and its promise, what it shook the country free of and what it created about the future — was so epic that the more you played it and thought about it and lived in it, the more you realized how much it had changed you.
At the same time, the entire music-critic commentariat came together as one to disembowel “Elvis,” Albert Goldman’s scandalous 1981 biography of the King, which was said, at the time, to be an act of cultural desecration. Goldman actually wrote brilliantly about Presley’s talent, but his crime — his sensationalist sin — was to revel in every last tawdry detail of Elvis’s addictions, his compromises, his degraded descent. The book was condemned as “pathography” (Joyce Carol Oates’ word), but in many ways the brutal honesty of its tabloid fixations placed it ahead of its time.
In “Promised Land,” Eugene Jarecki puts together both sides of Elvis: the incandescent American artist and the overblown dysfunctional sellout. And what he demonstrates is that 40 years after Elvis left us (he died on August 16, 1977), his slow fall now seems inseparable from his all-too-brief reign. Jarecki interviews Greil Marcus, who has never lost the faith, and Marcus makes the revelatory point that prior to the existence of the United States, there had never been a political document that devoted an entire nation to anything like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Elvis Presley, when he came on the scene, was acting that out. Elvis shaking his hips on TV, sexualizing the entire culture and doing it with that ebullient fast-vibrato croon, was the pursuit of happiness. He seemed to open that door to everyone.
Elvis the pinkie-ringed druggie, doing karate chops from the Vegas stage, was the pursuit of happiness eating its own tail. And it was right around then that America began to create the template for the society we have today, which is dominated by the twin demons of addiction and advertising. “Fake news” isn’t just fake information; it’s commercials — lies — consuming the culture of reality. And what are Donald Trump’s policies, really, but a series of reflexive hate gestures (I hate Obamacare! I hate the media! I hate our NATO allies! I hate immigrants and Muslims! I hate climate-change science!) turned into an addictive revenge thriller. He’s addicted to the hate, and his supporters are addicted to him. They’re addicted to the Fat Orange Elvis.
“Promised Land” is a searching, flawed, let’s-try-this-on-and-see-how-it-looks movie. At times, it veers too close to being a standard Elvis chronicle, and at others its insight into our national neurosis may strike you as a tad ethereal. It’s an essay in the form of an investigation. Yet it’s the definition of tasty food for thought, and with the right handling there should be a modest but eager audience for it, one that’s more than ready to respond to the optimism at its core. Elvis, after all, may have lost his faith, but the difference between Elvis and America is that we still have time to get ours back.