The best documentaries are about something specific. Look at Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. It is about a family-owned bank that became the only financial institution to be prosecuted in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. It functions primarily as a character study and legal thriller; along the way, it becomes about something bigger than its subject. The King, on the other hand, is not a specific documentary. It is about how Elvis Presley serves as a metaphor for America, with a particular focus on the 2016 election. This is a broad topic – so broad, in fact, that the film veers into unintentional self-parody. Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki is certainly ambitious. He also has about as much insight as a free-associating stoner.
Jarecki and his crew start with Presley’s Rolls Royce. They outfit it with cameras, and go on a roadshow of his life. They start in Mississippi, where he was born, then head to Memphis where he recorded most of his songs. Along the way, Jarecki interviews celebrities, pundits, musicians, and historians who opine about Presley’s life. There are cameos from Ashton Kutcher, Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, James Carville, and Chuck D. Along the pastiche Presley biography, Jarecki peppers imagery of Donald Trump as evidence of modern discord. The King labors on the idea that the tragedy of Presley’s life mirrors the decline of America, when the truth is way more complicated than that.
There are fleeting moments of insight, and that is because some of Jarecki’s subjects happen to be interesting. Ethan Hawke can be thoughtful, so his knowledge of Elvis leads to shrewd observations about his musical legacy. Chuck D famously rapped, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me,” and his explanation for that lyric is more nuanced than you might expect. Sometimes the talking heads even disagree: CNN pundit Van Jones plainly says Elvis appropriated music from black people, while the creator of The Wire David Simon suggests the truth is a little more complicated than that. Of course, Jarecki declines to offer his personal point of view.
The trouble is that these moments are few and far between. The rest of The King meanders from topic to topic, offering little beyond a gnawing sense of frustration. You could make entire films about artistic appropriation, the civil rights movement, the idea of “selling out,” Boomer nostalgia, and the American dream. Instead, Jarecki has made a movie about all of those topics like a hobbyist, stringing simplistic metaphors together with footage of the Rolls Royce and classic Elvis performances.
Two years ago, the huckster right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza made Hillary’s America. It is an ahistorical account of how the Democrats are the source of everything wrong with the country, blaming them for slavery (D’Souza conveniently ignores the evolution of modern political parties). It would be offensive if it weren’t so boring and stupid. The King is nowhere near as bad Hillary’s America, yet Jarecki and D’Souza share similar instincts. They have a simple idea, and conform their film around it, when better films do it the other way around. Elvis fans will learn absolutely nothing new from The King, and anyone concerned about the country would accomplish more by reading an issue of The Nation or whatever.
Indulging Jarecki’s lazy metaphor is the sole reason this film exists. Sure, all films indulge the whims and ideas of their directors, but at least most of them have the desire to be entertaining first.