The King – 8.5

The King tells a story of America over the last 60 years using the life of Elvis Presley as its metaphor. From an era of innocence and authenticity and world-shaking change, we progress, or regress, to bloated stagnation with money the only goal, from Tupelo to Las Vegas. But director Eugene Jarecki doesn’t preach; he lays out a visual and musical buffet from which the viewer can pick and choose and to which, I suspect, one could return for seconds. I have been a diehard Elvis fan since 1955, so the shots of him performing “Don’t Be Cruel” and talking with his eyes twinkling would have almost been enough for me. The social commentary by Elvis scholars and critics added a second, provocative layer. Another thread was the musical vignettes, with performers, often obscure to me, singing in the backseat of Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce. Without any announcement, they covered the spectrum of music that colored America around Elvis: the blues, country, Americana, rock, surf, gospel, torch, even early hip-hop. The car itself was a character: it helped tell the story as it drove from Tupelo to Memphis to Nashville to New York to Hollywood to Vegas. Jarecki, too, appeared on camera, never obtrusive but enough to offer us a way into the picture. There were talking heads who didn’t have obvious connections to Elvis or music – Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers, Van Jones, Ethan Hawke – but again expanded the movie’s horizon beyond specialists. In the background, archival clips reminded us of what else was going on: Martin Luther King, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, juxtaposed with flashes of Donald Trump and the 2016 election. When Elvis, in a final performance, lets loose on “Unchained Melody,” we don’t know whether to believe there is still power and life in the mess we’ve made, or whether this is the last extravagant bloom for a hemorrhaging society.

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