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PBS’s 'Independent Lens' Goes on the Road in Search of The King
January 28, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 

It’s going to take more than one road trip to sort out the legacy of Elvis Presley.

Eugene Jarecki’s The King, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET in PBS’s Independent Lens series, proves that point almost inadvertently, when its well-intentioned effort to frame Elvis as a human incarnation of The American Dream fragments into what feels more like a series of random observations and arguments.

The King also doesn’t address an increasingly salient question that almost has to be asked about Elvis in 2019. Since well over half the country was born after he died in 1977, does he become more of an abstraction with each passing year.

Does a growing part of America hear him as just words, like “Watergate” or “Marilyn Monroe,” whose visceral resonance is gradually fading?

The King isn’t required to address that. But it’s there.

The King revolves around Jarecki piling into Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce and cruising around America with two philosophical missions. He wants to talk with famous people who might have interesting perspectives on Elvis’s life and he wants to get a sense whether the American Dream that Elvis represents still seems to be a feasible aspiration today.

Jarecki presumably wasn’t expecting any clear-cut definitive answers from either quest, and he doesn’t get any.

He visits Tupelo, where Elvis grew up in a small “shotgun” house, so named because you could theoretically fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would go right out the back door.

While Elvis remains an industry in Tupelo, the rest of the town seems to have withered. Jarecki talks with several women who say that for them, the dream is dead. They see no likely path down which most working families today can propel their kids into success and prosperity.

America has become a subsistence world, they say, and Jarecki finds others around the country with a similar view. As for Elvis, who could be legitimately held up as a poor kid who parlayed his skill into wild riches, he’s more often portrayed here as a victim of his success.

He’s likened at one point to King Kong – a sideshow, a curiosity, a prisoner.

Jarecki walks his way through Elvis’s life story with some of the best music historians around, including Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus. They and others excoriate Elvis’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, for steering him into lightweight movies and lucrative Las Vegas gigs, thereby suppressing his creative spirit while putting him in situations where he became dependent on the prescription pills that eventually were a major factor in his early death.

This view of Elvis hardly breaks new ground, nor does most of the rest of the biography here.

More unusual for Elvis productions is extensive commentary from Chuck D of Public Enemy and author Van Jones, neither of whom is an Elvis fan. Chuck D has long argued that Elvis was a hero only to white America, and Jones takes that a step further, arguing that Elvis went to school on black music and then never spoke out for civil rights or other real-life black causes.

Conversely, all the white folks here speak well of Elvis. But Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Alec Baldwin, James Carville and Dan Rather, among others, pass through so quickly that their observations feel almost like random one-liners. 

They get no more weight than an amusing argument toward the end about whether the Rolls was really the right car for this trip. Should it have been one of Elvis’s Cadillacs, since he considered the real symbol of success?

Jarecki captures a number of good lines over 90 minutes, and many have a ring of truth, humor or both. At one point it’s suggested that Elvis went into the Army in 1958 as James Dean and came out in 1960 as John Wayne.

Guralnick likens Elvis’s relationship with the American Dream to Ahab’s relationship to Moby Dick. It was his quest and ultimately it killed him.

In the end, The King feels disjointed, the film equivalent of taking random songs and putting them together into an album. The whole feels vaguely disorienting – and less than the sum of its parts.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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