In the road movie/documentary The King, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes one of Elvis Presley's old cars on the road to look for evidence linking the decline of Elvis to the decline of America.
The car breaks down immediately, though it's hard to tell what falls apart first – the Rolls-Royce Phantom, or Jarecki's tortured metaphor.
But don't take it from me. Signs of trouble are detected among Jarecki's own employees. Once the disabled vehicle is lifted onto a flatbed, Jarecki has a conversation with a crewman who confesses he doesn't know what the director is trying to do. He suspects Jarecki doesn't either.
The fellow is one of the few noncelebrities interviewed in the movie, which seeks the opinions of Mike Myers, Alec Baldwin, and Ethan Hawke (spitballing like he's still in Before Sunrise), all providing variations on Jarecki's labored theme: America is going to hell in a handcart, and hell is a theater that only shows Viva Las Vegas.
We're told that Presley, a poor nobody from the Memphis projects who became a rock and roll pioneer and thus rich and famous is really the inverse of the American dream, because he squandered his gifts, betrayed his artistic soul, surrendered to the seductive lure of capitalism (Hollywood! Vegas!) and became a mere product that could be sold around the world, thus combining corrupting capitalism with cultural imperialism.
There are several blown head gaskets in this line of reasoning. One is Jarecki's implication that Presley became famous overseas because of his movies, even as he cites those awful movies as evidence of Presley's status as a sellout.
But Elvis was already a phenomenon when, pre-Hollywood, he hit Berlin to serve his stint in the armed forces. In 1959, protesters in East Berlin chanted his name during anti-Soviet, pro-West demonstrations. They heard in his music what Americans heard – freedom from the constraints of an old world giving way to a new one.
Ich Bin Ein Elvis.
Jarecki, perhaps sensing that he's been stuck with a lemon, sometimes abandons his sour lecture to include musical interludes. Various musicians pile into the backseat, where they talk about Elvis, or play a few of their own tunes.
At times, Jarecki seems to be actively avoiding insight and empathy. His jumbled biography and random musical selections accidentally yield an interesting moment – a section on Elvis' deep bond with his mother and her early death merge with footage of Elvis onstage near the end of his own life, performing "Unchained Melody." We hear the song in a new way – a son singing about his mother, the way Rosanne Cash turned "Sea of Heartbreak" into a song about father, Johnny.
Jarecki is unmoved. He actually stops the performance to have Elvis' housekeeper talk about how she prepared his sandwiches.
Hawke makes a tired joke about Presley dying on the toilet.
It's this movie, though, that needs a cleanse.