What does Elvis Presley mean to American culture now? Eugene Jarecki’s terrific documentary The King ponders this question as he takes Elvis’ very-nearly-roadworthy 1963 Rolls Royce around the country in the year leading up to the 2016 election. Picking up celebrities and civilians from all walks of life, Jarecki draws parallels between Elvis’ rise and fall and how deeply fame and success can screw up a person, and the similar decline of the so-called American Dream as represented by the tragedy of the words “President Trump.” (Jarecki never theorizes how lifelong Republican Elvis would have voted, because that isn’t the point.)
A recurring debate is what obligation Elvis had to Black culture given his status and influence — both of which were waning considerably by the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s — and the point-counterpoint between Chuck D and Van Jones on the subject of cultural appropriation is worth the price of admission. The King presupposes some familiarity with Elvis’ life story, and Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt’s 1981 This Is Elvis, streamable on Amazon, is an excellent primer. The King is also helped immeasurably by Jarecki being able to use actual Elvis recordings, which isn’t always the case with documentaries. Hearing the real deal makes a world of difference.
Opens Friday at the Clay Theater.