Movie Review: The King (2018)
The fact that I left a screening of “The King” happy and ready to sing its praises should probably be taken with a grain of salt—or two beers, since that’s what I drank during the show. I’d ordered one (pilsner), the concession guy opened the wrong one (IPA), so he offered both. I looked at the bottles on the counter and thought, “Why the fuck not?” It was another shitty day in Trump’s America—the week Justice Kennedy announced his retirement—and I was dispirited. Ninety minutes later, I felt great. I felt ready to fight again. Was it the doc or the beer? Or some combo?
The doc, by the way, isn't exactly uplifting. But it does discuss, on an intelligent, macro level, much of what I feel is wrong with the country. So I felt less alone afterwards.
During the summer of 2016—the run-up to the Clinton-Trump election—director Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” “Why We Fight,”) drove Elvis Presley’s 1964 Rolls Royce through the towns and cities that made Elvis who he was. Chronologically:
- New York
- Las Vegas
Jarecki lets different folks into the backseat to play, sing, or just talk about Elvis and the state of the country. Basically, Elvis is seen as a metaphor for America. We took over the world with a sneer and a shake of our hips and without really knowing what we were doing. Then we grew addicted and overweight and addled. We forgot the words. Trump is our late-stage Vegas period. He's our fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. The toilet isn’t far away.
Give Jarecki credit. Not many filmmakers would let a supporting player, two-thirds of the way through the movie, say, in effect, “Your metaphor is all wrong.”
David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gets to say just that. He gives Jarecki shit for the Rolls. He says he should’ve been driving one of the many American-made Cadillacs Elvis gave away to friends and family over the years. Emmylou Harris echoes a bit of this, too: “I thought he only drove American cars,” she says. In effect, Simon wants to continue the argument from “The Wire”’s second season: “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” Baltimore dock worker Frank Sobotka says. “Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” But it’s not Simon’s movie. And maybe the opulence of the Rolls is a better metaphor anyway.
Based on the trailer, I was worried the doc would be too much Elvis-bashing in terms of race: that he stole black music and made a fortune on it; that the various country and gospel influences in Elvis’ background didn’t factor in at all. Simon, of all people, is the one who brings up the other influences.
As for “stole,” well, you can argue Elvis was simply playing the music he liked. At Sun Records, he was recording stuff he assumed would be popular—ballads and ‘50s pop—and that just didn’t click for Sam Phillips. It was only between sessions, goofing around, that he launched into an old blues number, “That’s All Right, Mama,” which caused Phillips to perk up and ask him what he was doing. Elvis’ inclination was to apologize. Phillips knew, Elvis did not.
That said, Chuck D has a point, too. Whether Elvis “stole,” “appropriated” or was simply “influenced by” black music, he never repaid the debt. A lot of white stars, without such a debt, participated in civil rights marches and the emblematic 1963 March on Washington, including Paul Newman (born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio), Marlon Brando (Nebraska) and even Charlton Heston (Illinois/Michigan). Elvis stayed silent. He didn’t get involved in any of it. He doubled down on “good ol' boy.”
You could probably do a doc just on “Hound Dog” alone. Most know Elvis made a hit of it in’56; a few know Big Mama Thornton had a hit earlier; fewer still know it was written by a couple of Jewish kids, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who got so screwed from Thornton’s recording they started their own label in 1953. The hand-wringers claim Elvis stole the song from Thornton, but she recorded her version back in ’52, when it was a rhythm-and-blues hit. It went as far as it could under the circumstances. His take is different. It races. It rocks and rolls. You can blame racism for why her version didn't hit bigger. Elvis was just singing a song.
“You have no idea how hard he hit American culture,” James Carville reminds us, and it’s because of what he was bringing into white living rooms: race and sex, the forbidden duo. The white power structure—both South and North—went crazy. Elvis was condemned, mocked, viewed as a freak. He was viewed as low class. Eventually they just drafted him away. When he returned he was tamed: maybe by age, or the Army, or Hollywood, or maybe just by the need to fit in; to not be a freak in the eyes of people whose approval he wanted.
Maybe he was tamed by money? That’s something Ethan Hawke, sitting in the front seat, with a dumbass toothpick in his mouth, mentions. Every chance Elvis had between money and art, he went with the money. But this could also be about his need to fit in; to win over his detractors. Sadly, as he was mollifying one group, others, off his flank, were rising. One mocked him as a thief; another made him irrelevant. Mike Myers tells a great story—probably apocryphal—about Elvis’ early Hollywood days. At the studio gates, girls gathered, hoping for a glimpse and a chance to scream. So Col. Tom Parker had them put a blanket over Elvis in the back seat, and he sailed through. Then when the Beatles broke, the girls went away but the blanket stayed. Before it was to hide Elvis so he wouldn’t cause a frenzy; after, it was to hide from Elvis the fact that he was no longer causing one.
We get a little on Elvis’ early days: the dead twin; how his dad went to prison for a few months. I could’ve used more of this. That background is so sketchy. I’ve read several biographies of the Beatles but none on Elvis. Maybe I should get on that. But what can I say? Their music is more interesting and they’re more interesting.
The doc includes some great music I haven’t heard before: Emi Sunshine & The Rain; Immortal Technique. My favorite backseat drivers are Carville, Simon, Immortal Technique and Van Jones. I'd love to hear them get together and just talk. John Hiatt, meanwhile, gets in the backseat and cries. You think it’s because he's sitting where Elvis sat, and the power of that thought, but it’s the opposite. He sits there and senses just how trapped Elvis was.
Saddest moment? Alec Baldwin in New York talking politics. He makes a prediction about the 2016 election. He's wrong.