The American Dream is a conceit that’s woven into the fabric of the country: Anyone can come to the U.S., and through hard work and diligence, accomplish anything they set out to do. It’s also almost a complete fabrication, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of the wealth in this country is controlled by an elite, white minority. In his new documentary The King, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, The House I Live In) uses the life of Elvis Presley as an allegory for the lifespan of America, and the death of that dream. As a group of savvy diners puts it in one of Jarecki’s many stops on his cross-country tour in Elvis’ Rolls Royce, we’re about to overdose. In the life cycle of the country, Jarecki warns, we’re entering the bathroom with a book on the morning of August 16, 1977.
That premise seems like a stretch on paper, and at times Jarecki himself seems to be floundering, asking a member of his crew, “What do you think I’m doing with this movie?” To help him figure it out, he drafts a disparate group of Rolls passengers and confidants, from political strategist James Carville to musician John Hiatt (who starts weeping almost immediately upon entering Elvis’ car) to Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin to actor Ethan Hawke. The “Elvis = America” equation may have started as a murky metaphor, but Jarecki manages to flesh it out by the end of the film, even if, at times, the viewer gets so sucked into the tragedy of Elvis’ life that the parallels—like footage of a Trump rally to represent the fall of the U.S.—can seem like a jarring intrusion. And the frequent references to King Kong don’t really land. (Elvis wasn’t dragged into public life via captivity, but was a very willing participant.) Still, the overall merging of the two stories offers deeper insight into the fall of both the King and the country as a whole.
As a few of the many talking heads point out, America was, at its conception, seen as a grand experiment in democracy, at a time when most countries were ruled by monarchs. The then-surprising goal was to show that the people could actually rule themselves. Like the young Elvis, this credo was rebellious, rock ’n’ roll, and extremely attractive. Then, that idealistic platform was corrupted by excess, drugs, and money, particularly via corporations and capitalism—a fate not so different than Elvis’. By the end of his life, the star had fallen far, from the perfect icon of the young Elvis stamp to the caricature of the rejected old Elvis stamp.
To explain the descent of America through the lens of Elvis’ life, Jarecki starts where Elvis was born: in Tupelo, as the only child of a poor family. Elvis then found success in Memphis by embodying Sam Phillips’ dream of a white singer able to push black music. While The Wire creator David Simon argues that all pop culture has myriad influences in one form or another, CNN political contributor Van Jones explains, through his father’s perspective, why some black entertainers like Public Enemy have derided the King: “As a black kid, seeing a white man take black music and become famous and not do anything for black people was a horrible offense.” As the most popular entertainer in the world, Elvis had tremendous power—but unlike many stars of his age, he stayed apolitical, far from peace marches or candidate rallies. Elvis isn’t really the villain in his own story or as a stand-in for America (that role belongs to his manager, the exceptionally greedy and duplicitous Colonel Tom Parker), but his failure to act, instead of just going along with the flow, makes him complicit. Jarecki wisely contrasts Elvis’ dutiful army stint to Muhammad Ali being jailed for refusing to enlist. As rapper Immortal Technique points out, America is really a nation that got its land by genocide, and built its empires by enslaving another race.
Eventually, Jarecki’s road-trip trace of Elvis’ journey (with the Rolls ironically breaking down a few times along the way) leads us to Hollywood, where Presley, steered by Parker, almost completely sold out in a series of increasingly execrable movies, just as America’s main exports switched from agricultural to entertainment. Ashton Kutcher shows up to pontificate on what it must have been like for Elvis to have that level of fame at such a young age, as a crowd of sightseers yells to him. Mike Myers jumps in to offer the Canadian perspective, equating his home country to the responsible type that stayed home and kept house (keeping peace and democracy intact, he points out) while America went off to become an attention-seeking pop star. A multitude of talented musical guests—Nicki Bluhm And The Gramblers, M. Ward, The Handsome Family—underscore the tremendous, undeniable impact of Elvis’ groundbreaking music, even if his personal legacy is more questionable.
As we enter Elvis’ bloated, drug-addled years in Vegas, a multitude of ever-expanding sequined jumpsuits only exacerbate the fact that the King is now coasting on his previous legendary status, a shell of his former self, now representative of much of what rock music was rebelling against in the first place. When Jarecki ties it all back to the current state of the U.S., with a similarly bloated Trump showcasing the worst tendencies of not just America but humanity in general, it’s a stark lesson. Elvis achieved a skyrocketing success previously unseen in pop culture, and then became his own victim by letting it get away from him. As Jarecki proves with this extended, sometimes bumpy, but still worthy metaphor, it’s the same with the U.S. We’ve been coasting along for so many years, taking democracy for granted, that the entire structure of the nation is now in peril. The King doesn’t really have an ending, as it remains to be seen if the country can possibly rebound from its current state—or if America’s dream of democracy will die young, just like its most famous entertainer, a victim of its own short-sightedness and excess.