How ‘The King’ rose and fell
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.”