The King vs. the “Reality Star Fool”

The King, Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary, compares the glorious ascendance and pitiful demise of Elvis Presley to the Trump era.

Photo taken in 1950 shows Us singer Elvis Presley during a TV show.
Elvis Presley in 1950.
/AFP/Getty Images

At Cannes last year, Eugene Jarecki, the filmmaker behind the acclaimed 2006 documentary Why We Fight, unveiled an ambitious new project that had been years in the making. Originally titled Promised Land, the film follows Jarecki as he travels across the country in a 1963 Rolls Royce once owned by Elvis Presley, attempting to chronicle the rock star’s meteoric rise and devastating fall against the backdrop of the political and cultural tensions of the 2016 election.

The final version of the doc, now titled The King, was acquired by Oscilloscope earlier this month and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. In it, Jarecki begins his journey in Presley’s birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, before moving on to Memphis, where a young Elvis became immersed in the culturally rich blues traditions that would shape his musical aesthetic. Later, he traces his ascendance in the music and film industry through New York, Hollywood, and Las Vegas. Along the way, Jarecki meets and picks up a multitude of colorful talking heads, some famous (including Alec Baldwin and co-producer Ethan Hawke), some who knew Presley personally, others pleasantly conversational locals with a story to tell. They expound upon Presley’s complicated legacy and troubled personal life and discuss how the country’s obsession with capitalism and greed have successfully killed the myth of the American dream for the middle/working class and the poor.

The King is an entertaining watch, if a bit scattered at times when attempting to balance and connect Presley’s life and career with more recent political and cultural shifts that have led us to the election of Trump. But there’s no shortage of memorable quotes and introspective moments, especially in a sit-down interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who expands upon his infamous “Fight the Power” lyric in pleasantly unexpected ways. Just ahead of its premiere at Sundance, Jarecki sat down with me to discuss his vision for the film, and further elaborate on how he views the country’s current state through the lens of Elvis. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aisha Harris: Where did the idea of traveling across the country in Elvis’ Rolls Royce come from?

Eugene Jarecki: The thinking for this started in the 2013 timeframe. The preparing for it as a vision of America through the eyes of Elvis and in the metaphor of Elvis for America, that was where we began. Then, as we studied Elvis and started to learn everything about what was going on then and now, one of the things that came to our attention was that there had been a Rolls Royce that he had owned, and that car was available. It was something that a movie could take on a road trip. It didn’t take me long to imagine what it would be like to set out on an odyssey in Elvis’ Rolls across the country he left behind.

In a lot of ways the film started out with an idea: Who is more American than Elvis? And who better represents the hopes and dreams of the country than Elvis, and the era that one thinks of when he came into prominence? Yet, at the same time, that’s complicated, because that era was rife with its own complexities. We’re talking about postwar Jim Crow America. We’re talking about America in the 1950s confronting the complexities of her own birth and growth. Yet, there’s something very beautiful there in the birth of the country and the birth of Elvis. They both arrive on the scene and they hit like a meteor. The world is never the same for it. The film began with that idea at a time of great challenge in America. This was before Trump but the country was already the country that would end up with Trump, and that’s not a healthy country.

There’s one quote in particular that stuck out to me, and it’s from Ethan Hawke. He said something along the lines of, ‘Elvis took the money at every turn,’ every chance he got he went for the money instead of …

Something deeper.

Something deeper—and then where does that leave him? “Dead on the toilet at 42.” I got the sense that if not you, at least a lot of the people you interviewed felt as though the country has reached the bottom of the bottom, like we are done. Do you feel fatalistic in a way, when you look at where we are right now?

The whole thing is like Rocky. To be honest with you I saw Rocky when I was a boy and I think it scarred me for life because I do believe that one of the ironies of life is that the best shit happens when you’re very, very far down. It creates situations where over and over when I look at global conditions I’m the one person in the room who has some funny sense of possibility in the worst of times. I always have been that person, I don’t know why. It makes me feel a little strange sometimes because you want to look at a horrible situation and say that is a horrible situation period, there’s no silver lining here, but the truth is that when Elvis is at his best, it all crashes. America emerges victorious from World War II, and it has been a steady slope downward toward imperialism and all of its trespasses ever since. We get to the top of our game and we overplay our hand and we start encroaching, encroaching, encroaching, becoming the very empire that the [Constitution] Framers did not want us to be because they broke off from an empire. It’s classic.

One of the things we are suffering from the most is that American victory in the 20th century created a kind of comfort—and I’m not saying [this is true] for poor people, but—I’m saying the general thrust of those who governed this country is that their lives were made so comfortable that they didn’t have want. Because they didn’t have want they didn’t create policies that promote achievement and that promote growth. They create policies that in a very neoliberal way service us to have all the goodies and the color TV and the full-service pushbutton FedEx iPhone selfie lifestyle and that has made us noncompetitive in the world, it’s part of what is making us drift downward and it also creates a kind of cancer of the soul. Industry brings us pride, it brings us depth, it brings discovery.

It seems like you were trying to find this connection to Elvis through your travels—having gone into it with one idea, and then the ugliness of the 2016 election happens and having to switch gears. How did you decide that this wouldn’t just be about Elvis, but would also be a link to Trump?

When the film premiered at Cannes it was very different from now.

It was called Promised Land.

In the change of the title and in the change of the content of the film you see my process of learning how the election and specifically the ascent of Trump figured into the larger American story that I’m looking to tell. When I started out on the road trip I started out on the 2016 timeframe, so I knew that I was going to be driving across the country with the election and its aftermath drifting by outside the window of Elvis’ car. And I knew that that was going to be an interesting thing to look at because we knew that it was one of the most fractious, turbulent, soul-searching times in American history.

That Trump would win, and he won right before we brought the film to Cannes, actually threw a curve ball into the narrative, if I’m honest, because people said “I get what you’re doing, he even looks like him; Trump is the fat Elvis.” It dawned on me after the festival that that’s not true—Trump is the opposite of Elvis. Trump is the embodiment of everything that killed Elvis Presley, all of the greed, all of the misshaped priorities, all of the addiction and sloth and white male elitism and you can go on and on. Primarily he is an embodiment of the capitalism that destroyed Elvis Presley because Donald Trump is an embodiment of money as an ultimate priority over anything else.

But can’t you argue Elvis also did that himself?

I think you have to ask yourself where Elvis ends and where the forces acting upon Elvis begin. To be fair to Elvis and to be critical of Elvis you can do both. One can say Elvis was the first person who ever became this kind of super star and the Colonel Tom Parker, who managed Elvis, was an extremely shrewd business person who took a rather naïve country boy under his wing, took 50 percent as a management share so he did something that a cleverer person wouldn’t have let him do. He took 50 percent but he also won Elvis the world in many ways or at least half the world, OK. You can say a lot of that was done to Elvis and who among us has the power to push away the kind of fame and the kind of power that was made available to him? I think some of us have that ability and I think a lot of us would go a lot like Elvis and think, “I’m doing good for the world. Look at these fans. Read this fan mail. I must be doing good, everybody loves me.”

When we talk about Trump being the embodiment of everything that killed Elvis it doesn’t let Elvis off the hook. The best way to understand the American situation right now in my view is that the American people have suffered decades of abuse in which the rich have gotten richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class is evaporating, and the American people were desperate, like any abused person would be, for a change. And the American people said I’m so upset, I’m so frustrated with the status quo the next fool that walks in that door saying anything else, that’s the one I’m going to go with—and in walked this grotesque reality star fool saying just what you wanted because he’s a gifted con artist, so you went with him.

What is he? He’s American’s rebound guy, that’s what Donald Trump is, and we all know abused people, we encourage them to break out of the abusive relationship they’re in and what do we know, they always end up with another version of the same abuser, very often worse. Here we are. Now the question is when will America look at this condition and not just say ‘I’ve got to get rid of the rebound guy,’ which is a no-brainer. That’s only the start because if we’re not careful we’ll just replace him with the next one, the next billionaire. Billionaires don’t run democracies, that’s not how they work.

Now, it’s very clear to me, he’s the embodiment of all that I wish Elvis Presley had escaped from, and therefore his cautionary tale for the American public is that this concoction of power and money which we now see embodied brazenly in Donald Trump, ubiquitously in Donald Trump, is clearly not the direction for an enlightened, kind or sustainable country or planet.