How ‘The King’ rose and fell

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Ontv -

For many, Elvis Pres­ley em­bod­ied the Amer­i­can dream, ris­ing from hum­ble be­gin­nings through hard work, tal­ent and charisma to un­prece­dented wealth, pop­u­lar­ity and power be­fore his pre­ma­ture death at age 42. A doc­u­men­tary de­but­ing this week on PBS ar­gues that his story should be a cau­tion­ary tale for the coun­try as a whole if we’re not care­ful.

In “The King,” a 90-minute “In­de­pen­dent Lens” film pre­mier­ing Mon­day, Jan. 28, film­maker Eu­gene Jarecki (“Why We Fight,” “The House I Live In”) takes view­ers on a cross-coun­try road trip in Pres­ley’s 1963 Rolls Royce to ex­plore his rise and fall as a metaphor for the coun­try he left be­hind, look­ing at the cur­rent state of the Amer­i­can dream and how it came to be.

Com­ing along for the ride are a di­verse group of pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing mu­si­cians John Hi­att, Roseanne Cash and Em­my­lou Har­ris, ac­tors Ethan Hawke, Alec Bald­win and Ash­ton Kutcher, news­man Dan Rather and po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors James Carville and Van Jones, who sit in the back of the ve­hi­cle and in some ways take in the Elvis ex­pe­ri­ence.

“So many things that Elvis ex­pe­ri­ences are sort of sym­bolic of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence,” Jarecki ex­plains, “the rise out of nowhere to be­come this colos­sus with the world in the palm of your hand that hap­pened to Elvis and hap­pened to Amer­ica. The power was pre­ma­ture and Elvis suf­fered this sort of un­der­tow of pre­ma­ture peril just like Amer­ica has done. Elvis, then, sort of reached out to all man­ner of quick-fix seda­tives and oth­er­wise, to sort of soothe the pain in his soul

... and we know where that leads for Elvis. And my fear was that ul­ti­mately what I was ex­am­in­ing was a cau­tion­ary tale of a man and his coun­try.”

The doc­u­men­tary trav­els to var­i­ous lo­cales sig­nif­i­cant to Pres­ley’s past, in­clud­ing Mem­phis, Tenn., and Tu­pelo, Miss., to see what they look like to­day. In the back of the Rolls, some celebrity rid­ers are clearly moved by the ex­pe­ri­ence and one, Hi­att, is brought to tears.

“It em­bod­ied some­thing so sym­bolic,” Jarecki says of the au­to­mo­bile, “about here’s this coun­try boy who be­comes a king and is rid­ing around in the back of a car most iden­ti­fied with the British royal fam­ily . ... So to see this beau­ti­ful coun­try boy rid­ing around in a car fit for a British king has al­ways rubbed me strangely ... in a way this royal in­va­sion that I think rep­re­sents the in­va­sion of power and money into Amer­i­can democ­racy.”

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