‘The King’ Is a One-of-a-Kind Documentary That Holds Elvis Up to the Haunting Light of Today

Eugene Jarecki's film is a majestic meditation on Elvis and America.

It’s always good news when a documentary finds a major audience (well, as long as it’s not directed by Dinesh D’Souza), and 2018 has become the summer of the documentary blockbuster. First “RBG,” then “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” and now — perhaps — “Three Identical Strangers,” the Sundance sensation about grown-up triplets who find one another (it had a powerful limited opening this weekend). Coming up Friday: “Whitney,” a bold and beautiful exposé of the life of Whitney Houston that has the potential to be another “Amy.” Yet there is one new documentary that’s hiding, just a bit, in the shadows, and it’s one that I passionately urge you to see, because it’s a one-of-a-kind movie that leaves a deep and lasting imprint.

The King,” directed by Eugene Jarecki, is a nonfiction chronicle of the life and career of Elvis Presley, but it’s really a documentary-meditation-essay-rhapsody, one that captures, as almost no film has, what’s happening, right now, to the American spirit.

Elvis, of course, was “the king of rock ‘n’ roll,” but the film’s short and sweet title plays up the way that he was royalty in a grander sense. Remember how in high school English class, you learned that the heroes of classical tragedy, from the Greeks through Shakespeare, were nearly always royal figures because they had to represent the pinnacle of what a human being could be? That’s what made their downfalls defining and devastating. You watch “Hamlet,” and within three-and-a-half hours a prince has descended into the darkness to become a murderer.

So what does that say about the rest of us?

In “The King,” we watch an inky-haired young rebel, who may have been the most handsome man of the 20th century, bring a vibratory erotic-ecstatic energy into the world (he didn’t invent that energy, but he channeled it, blended with it, and redefined it), and in doing so he changes the world overnight. He tilts it on its axis.

The movie takes in Elvis’s rise and fall — or, rather, his multiple falls, which were harder to see when they were happening because they were always tied to (and camouflaged by) his success. Yes, he churned out mediocre fluff movies like pastel sausages, but only because he signed the most lucrative contract in the history of Hollywood. He made a self-parodying joke of himself in Las Vegas, but only because enthralled audiences never stopped lining up to see him. And even that easy-to-ridicule phase — the jewels, the blubber, the karate moves — became so iconic that it spawned a never-ending industry of reverent impersonators. Through all the kitsch and the dross, of course, Elvis never completely stopped making great music.

The Elvis saga is old news, but what’s new — and revelatory — about “The King,” apart from the soulful dazzle of Jarecki’s filmmaking, is that it asks, at every turn, a haunting question: When you take a step back and really look at what happened to Elvis Presley

What does it say about the rest of us?

It says a tremendous amount. In a way that no film has before it, “The King” captures how Elvis, while he was blazing new trails as an entertainer, was being eaten alive by forces that were actually a rising series of postwar American addictions.

The healthy desire to be successful, and even to stay on top, evolved into an over-the-top lust to break the bank. Elvis started as a true artist, but in Hollywood his movies made a spectacle — almost a debased ritual — of commercial compromise. (You could chortle at a cheese doodle like “Blue Hawaii,” but you couldn’t argue with it, because it was the earliest incarnation of The Blockbuster Mentality.) And as an individual, Elvis, even as he remained a superstar, became the ultimate consumer. He ate and drank and ate some more, and sat on his gold toilet throne, and sealed himself off from the real world, like Howard Hughes on a junk-food binge that never ended. High on Dilaudid (i.e., opioids), Elvis shot out his TV screen with a gun. Today, he’d be on an all-night video-game bender.

“The King,” which has been trimmed into a more lean and elegant film since I reviewed it at Cannes last year, uses all of this to look at America today and ask: What happened to us? As a culture, how did we get so addicted, so recycled, so bloated, so wealth-worshipping, so cut off from reality? And, yes, how did we end up with a Depraved Orange Elvis as president?

The answer is that the forces of appetite, of advertising, of metaphysical sell-out that consumed Elvis Presley were, in fact, much larger than Elvis. In many ways, he put them on the map, but they were out there, in the American stratosphere. He just lived them and billboarded them. And now, just as they consumed Elvis, they’re consuming us. “The King” presents the rise and fall of Elvis Presley as a rehearsal — and warning — of the rise and fall of America.

What makes all this transporting, rather than depressing, is that “The King” revels in Elvis’ genius, in the gift he was given and the glory of what he did with it and how tragically he squandered it. I was born too late for Elvis, and when I was cutting my rock ‘n’ roll and pop and funk teeth on everything from Led Zeppelin to Elton John to Earth, Wind & Fire to Frank Zappa to ABBA to George Clinton to David Bowie to ELO, Elvis, when I saw clips of him, always seemed to exist in some ancient black-and-white world of hip-swiveling moves that may once have been revolutionary but now looked as dusty and quaint as the Twist. I thought of him as my father’s rock ‘n’ roll star. When I read what the rock critic Greil Marcus wrote about him in “Mystery Train,” celebrating Elvis as a transcendent and timeless American artist, I got it, but also didn’t get it. I understood in my head what Marcus was talking about, but it still seemed kind of theoretical: a boomer’s tone poem of nostalgia.

It was only as as the years went by that I began to hear, really hear, the early rockers; it took a long time for them to stop sounding quaint to me. Greil Marcus is one of the talking heads in “The King,” and he makes a deep and stunning point about Elvis that I think a lot of people, like myself, can hear more clearly now: that what Elvis incarnated, in his sound and his presence, was “the pursuit of happiness.” For the whole notion of pursuing happiness (or maybe we should call it joy), though written into the Declaration of Independence, had not always been something that people so actively did. Sure, people want to be happy, but for a long time, for the mass of humanity, the world was too harsh a place to make that pursuit anything but a luxury. Most were just surviving.

The American experiment was to democratize happiness — or, at least, the pursuit of it. And Elvis Presley acted that out with every sexy-cherubic smile and jolt of his body and crystal-clear tremolo he sang. “The King” lets you hear that. And then it asks: How, in a culture devoted to the pursuit of happiness, with an artist like Elvis as its king, did we begin to lose sight of how to achieve our own happiness? And how can we get that back? “The King” ends with a brilliant montage set to an astonishing piece of footage: Elvis, right at the end, when he’s a pale, drugged-out mess, seated on stage at the piano singing “Unchained Melody,” a song that I never knew he performed. It’s wrecked, and it’s transcendent. We hear, all at once, what Elvis was, what he became, and what he could have been. To watch “The King” is to feel, about America, that same fusion of memory and loss, devastation and hope.

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