PRINT Summer 2018


Eugene Jarecki, The King, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, 109 minutes. Elvis Presley.

FROM LATE 2015 through the end of 2016, the documentarian Eugene Jarecki drove around the United States in a 1963 silver Rolls-Royce that had belonged to Elvis Presley. Promised Land, the film that emerged from his travels, premiered at Cannes in May 2017. But over the next six months, it was reedited to become The King, its focus more sharply on the titular (by nickname) singer as a sieve through which to filter all the contradictions of America.

Jarecki is the author of The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril (2008) and the founder of the Eisenhower Project, a public-policy group devoted to antiwar strategy. Among the five other documentary features Jarecki has made are Why We Fight (2005), which uses the Iraq War to examine America’s imperialist drive toward military supremacy, and The House I Live In (2012), which investigates the failure of the war on drugs to prevent drug trafficking and use, as well as its fabulous success in creating a system of mass incarceration that disposes of segments of the population deemed undesirable by our democracy’s controlling interests. (Each of these garnered both a Peabody Award and the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.) In The House I Live In, Jarecki connects the criminalization of heroin and, later, crack cocaine and the legislation of mandatory-minimum sentencing to the explosion of prison populations and the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. Another disproportion—the length of mandatory minimums for crack possession compared to those for the more expensive and less addictive powdered form of cocaine—leaves no doubt about racism’s role in dispensing justice. In Jarecki’s analysis, racial and economic oppression were joined when the war on drugs was extended to methamphetamines and then opioids, both epidemic in white communities devastated by job loss and a lack of health care. Official unemployment statistics wouldn’t be at record lows without the prison system’s calculated extraction of huge numbers of addicts from the job market.

Eugene Jarecki, The House I Live In, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 108 minutes.

A filmmaker of exceptional intelligence, Jarecki, to put it simply, uses the medium—gathering audio and images and organizing them through editing—to elucidate a problem for himself and then to present his findings to an audience. If he didn’t imbue his arguments with such urgency, the viewer, overburdened with information, might find her attention flagging. Jarecki doesn’t rely on seductive personalities; no one person is on-screen long enough to become the focus of attention, or for us to identify with or be charmed by them. They are all voices in a mosaic organized around Jarecki’s central argument. In The House I Live In, his argument is that the war on drugs is a race and class war that is increasingly profitable for the incarceration industry, which includes not only prison-construction and staffing firms but also corporations that produce high-tech equipment used to surveil, restrain, and punish. Toward the film’s end, the historian Richard Lawrence Miller lays out the thesis of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). Hilberg described four links in a chain of destruction: first, the identification of a group as bad or subhuman; second, the ostracizing of members of that group, which deprives them of legitimate livelihoods, including their rights and property, so that they are forced into ghettos; third, their concentration in facilities such as prisons or camps where they can’t vote or have children but where their labor can be exploited; fourth, their annihilation, either indirect, via the withholding of food or medical care, or direct, by simply killing them. At this point, Miller comments that while people would be disturbed to think that any part of this process is taking place in America, some of it certainly is. “In the drug war, there’s more that’s being confiscated,” explains Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). “What’s being taken from them is all hope in a future.” And as in Nazi Germany, if hatred is directed toward a group identified as bad or subhuman, the haters believe their own lives will become better if they remove that group from society.

Paralleling Elvis’s trajectory is the story of America, as the dream of democracy became the nightmares of imperialism and global capitalism.

When I first saw The House I Live In, just after Obama’s second term began, I thought that Jarecki needed an entire film to accommodate Hilberg’s analysis. It was too jarring an attack on our faith in American democracy to toss into the final fifteen minutes. And after all, a black man still held the presidency. I no longer have that fussy question about the shape of the film because the chain that Hilberg described winds tighter every day. Jarecki hasn’t pursued the subject directly in film again, although racism—the foundational sin of American democracy and the first step toward its destruction—is also at the center of The King.

Eugene Jarecki, The King, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, 109 minutes. Elvis Presley.

By singling out one luminary through which to crystallize American sins and aspirations, The King is an outlier in Jarecki’s filmography. Yet the film is much more than a biopic—it’s a road movie, a musical bonanza, and a polyphonic conversation among some very articulate people. It could have been a grim experience: the cautionary tale of the brief, meteoric rise of Elvis, the poor, white, handsome Southern boy who pulled off one of the most subversive feats in mass-culture history by bringing the music he loved—black R & B, with its groin-charging backbeat, and exultant gospel—into the mainstream, only to suffer a two-decade decline that ended with him fat, drug-addicted, and dead on the toilet at age forty-two. Paralleling Elvis’s trajectory is the story of the rise of America in the first years after World War II and then its long decline, as the dream of democracy became the nightmares of imperialism and global capitalism.

Eugene Jarecki, The King, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, 109 minutes. Elvis Presley.

Jarecki doesn’t pull punches. Every glorious vista has its toxic counterpart. “They did so many nuclear testings under Las Vegas that in many ways Vegas is like a radioactive mutation of capitalism,” says Mike Myers, providing one of the film’s dozens of memorable one-liners and paragraph-long observations from a galaxy of stars and unknowns, entertainers and intellectuals, public officials and private citizens of various ages, races, genders, and ethnicities. Among them: Chuck D; Greil Marcus; Van Jones; James Carville; Immortal Technique; David Simon; Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson; Ethan Hawke; EmiSunshine, with her jolting voice as bright and hard as a new copper penny, who knows she has received Elvis’s spirit as inspiration; men who worked with Elvis as musicians and/or were friends and confidants; women who knew him as a boy and now live on the blighted blocks in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, where he grew up and absorbed the music that made him “the King.” It is this multiplicity of voices—not to mention archival and live performances, shots of landscapes and cityscapes, watershed political and cultural events collaged into passages of sounds and images by a filmmaker for whom Hegelian dialectics is second nature—that makes The King a thrilling film experience and, by its very form, an evocation of the Resistance. This is what democracy looks like, sounds like, feels like.

The film is grounded spatially and temporally by the biographical narrative of Elvis’s years (1935–1977) on earth. The route that Jarecki takes in Elvis’s Rolls-Royce retraces the one that Elvis took, starting in Tupelo, where Elvis was born, and moving onto Memphis, where he spent his boyhood and, in Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio, cut the records that make James Carville—who early in the film jumps into the front seat next to Jarecki—observe, “You have no idea how hard he hit American culture,” and inspire Chuck D to rap in Public Enemy’s 1989 “Fight the Power,” “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see.” Then it’s on to New York, where Elvis plays The Steve Allen Show (singing “Hound Dog” to a hound dog) and The Ed Sullivan Show, which had first rejected him in favor of a special on John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956). In the city, Colonel Tom Parker, the devil who stole Elvis’s soul, tightened his grip with record-breaking recording and movie deals, from which Parker took a staggering 50 percent of the profits. “Elvis at every turn picked money,” observes Hawke, a co-producer of The King, less generous than those who view Elvis as a product of a nationwide shift from the values of democracy to those of capitalism (epitomized in Jarecki’s film by shots of Wall Street trading floors and Vegas slot machines).

It is this multiplicity of voices that makes The King a thrilling film experience.

Sea to shining sea: The film turns to Elvis’s debut in Los Angeles, where he makes the first few of what will be thirty-one unmemorable movies, then back to New York, where he is drafted, boards a boat to Germany, and, two years later, having done his service, returns in uniform, his joyous smile and curled-lip snarl replaced by a shit-eating grin. (This is one of the moments when a few seconds of faded movie footage do what the most expressively written literary descriptions cannot.)

Eugene Jarecki, The King, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, 109 minutes.

Jarecki mercifully doesn’t dwell on the records and movies of Elvis’s post-army 1960s until the King is miraculously reborn in the 1968 Singer Presents television special where he performs his Sun Records hits with the original band (marking the return of the backbeat). The film lingers here with a montage of astonishing performance clips and commentary by people who saw the event live and never forgot it. Greil Marcus describes Elvis at one point lifting up the mic stand and pointing it like a harpoon as he shouted, “Moby Dick!” (Melville associations thread through the film). “My God, he’s Captain Ahab,” Marcus expounds. “It’s just one of these epiphanies where thousands of meanings come crashing down all at once. He’s a living metaphor for any picture you might want to draw. That’s the American fantasy, not untold riches, not power over other people, [but] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” After the concert, Elvis follows the money to Vegas, where he stays nearly until his death in Memphis in 1977, all but disappearing from cultural discourse except as a memory; he is largely absent from the last third of The King as well, which increasingly foregrounds the political and cultural conversation of 2016 while keeping images of Trump, the candidate and then president-elect, to a minimum. (“Trump is toxic,” remarked Jarecki when I interviewed him. “Even a little bit is too much.”)

Working with an exceptional editing team—Simon Barker, Èlia Gasull Balada, Alex Bingham, and Laura Israel—Jarecki developed a structure in which nodes of images, words, and music are built around urgent issues that reach across history and geography and are elaborated throughout the film. Many of the conversations are about racism and cultural appropriation. The American dream and the American nightmare always existed side by side: The first European settlers committed genocide on the native population, built up the economy through the labor of slaves, and after emancipation enacted Jim Crow laws and enforced segregation—and not just in the South. The problem with Elvis is not that he “stole” black music (“Culture is culture,” says Chuck D; “culture is to be shared”) but that he never gave anything back. Imagine, Jones speculates, if Elvis had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as Marlon Brando did.

The problem with Elvis is not that he “stole” black music but that he never gave anything back.

Two months before his death, Elvis was booked onto yet another television special by Parker, who was determined to extract the last bit of profit from his dying client. The singer stumbled about the stage and tried to talk his way through songs whose lyrics he could not remember. Perhaps knowing that this would be his last performance, he concluded by sitting down at the piano to play and give voice to a soaring, shattering rendition of “Unchained Melody.” Jarecki sets the coda of The King to this desperate cry from the heart, going for broke just the way Elvis did. Who knows what visions were in Elvis’s head as he sang, “Oh my love, my darling / I’ve hungered for your touch / A long lonely time.” The touch that Jarecki hungers for as he gives us glimpses of decades of horrors is the ideal of American democracy. “I need your love / I need your love,” Elvis implores across images of commotion at the stock exchange, frenzy in Vegas gambling palaces, fireworks at the Republican convention, swat teams breaking down doors, foreclosure signs on lawns, the twin towers burning, a TV screen showing “Shock and Awe” in Iraq, flooded New Orleans, armored police facing off with demonstrators, and on and on. The pace of the edits accelerates until we glimpse, high on a wall, a Black Lives Matter billboard, and then slows to show crowds demonstrating against war, against racism, against capitalism, against sexism. In the midst of the 2016 Women’s March in Washington, DC, the camera closes in on a sign: DEMOCRACY IS NOT FOR SALE. The next and last thing we see is a close-up of Elvis’s sweaty face as he turns to the camera, his eyes confused and his lips stretching into one last tuckered-out smile.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Eugene Jarecki’s The King opens Friday, June 22 at IFC Center and The Landmark in New York.