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The Angler: The King Is Dead and He Should Stay that Way

Eugene Jarecki’s energetic film fails to realize that America should let Elvis rest for the sake of its own troubled future.

By Dorothy Woodend 3 Aug 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

I remember the day Elvis died. I was nine years old. It was a hot day in August, the end of summer, and nothing much was going on. Time stretched out like warm taffy. The sleepy afternoon was suddenly shattered when a car screeched into our front yard, spumes of dust and gravel following fast in its wake. The doors opened, and our friends Patty and Tammy spilled out. I don’t remember if they actually fell out onto the lawn, although it seemed that way at the time. What was obvious was that both of them were in a considerable amount of distress. Wailing, staggering, snot and tears comingled in slippery streaks on their faces, they screamed “Elvis is dead!”

“Who is Elvis?” I wondered.

Flash forward a few decades, and Elvis is still dead.

But in other ways the man is quite lively, making the occasional appearance in the Weekly World News and also having a moment in documentary-land, thanks to the ministrations of director Eugene Jarecki.

Jarecki is an interesting filmmaker. His previous work Why We Fight, The House I Live In, and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, all took aim at different, albeit related, aspects of the American experience.

In The King, Jarecki again sets his lens upon the country of his birth as filtered through the figure of Elvis Presley.

There is perhaps no more iconic American story than that of Elvis — poor country boy shoots to global super duper pooper stardom, dies on a toilet, a bloated wreck of his former glory, and ascends into everlasting celebrity like a rock and roll Jesus.

Even if the clueless younger me had no idea who he was, the rest of the world was paying more attention.

As the film points out, a few terms had to be invented to capture the true scale of the man’s impact. Political pundit James Carville explains it thusly, “He hit America so hard that he changed the way it tasted.”

Since he slipped this mortal coil (insert bathroom humour here), the Elvis effect has been equaled (the Beatles, et al) but perhaps never bested. His story has been analyzed and dissected ad nauseam, its entrails examined, all possible details of the man’s life and death queried and opined upon. What more could the kid from Tupelo, Mississippi possibly have to tell about us about the American dream turned nightmare?

Even the filmmaker himself seems somewhat unclear what audiences are supposed to glean from yet another visitation.

He poses the question to a dyspeptic member of the film’s production crew and receives the following assessment: “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing with this movie … I’m not sure, you know what you’re doing, and that’s the scary part. Some comparison, between the rise and decline of Elvis, with the rise and decline of America?”

That is pretty much it, but to be fair the arc and trajectory of Elvis’s life and career seem to be finding a closer echo to American experience than ever before.

But before we get there, the central conceit of the film must be established. It is just this: drive across the U.S.A. in Elvis’s own 1963 Rolls-Royce, a massive tank of a car, complete with a mini-bar, velvety seats and people talking about the King in what is ostensibly a moving film studio.

So off we roll, ribbons of the American heartland unwinding against the windshield. Along the way, a cornucopia of different folk clamber in and out — musicians, actors, writers, politicians and a few random weirdoes — all holding forth on the meaning of Elvis. Occasionally, it seems as though there is no particular pattern to these soliloquies. What do Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, Ashton Kutcher, Dan Rather and Alec Baldwin have to do with Elvis? But here they are opining away about the rise and epic fall of the King of Rock and Roll with mansplaining glee.

The Wire’s David Simon, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Van Jones, and even Emmylou Harris offer additional analysis, enlivened by musical performances from the likes of The Handsome Family and John Hiatt.

Along the way the film also collects a string of images, film clips and media montages, like a long clattering line of tin cans attached to the bumper of the Rolls.

The excavation of dead celebrities is nothing new, but what the film does is to posit the Elvis narrative as something of an explainer for the current U.S. state of mind. What began in the glory of youth and rebellion, fuelled by sex, charisma and an entirely new species of fame, ended in drugged and obese despair. As went Elvis, so goes America, or some such thing.

851px version of Elvis-Band.jpeg
Is the myth of Elvis a metaphor for a once earnest nation or a junkyard of America’s lost dreams? A scene from the documentary The King.

The film tracks down folks who had the barest interaction with The King, including the lady who made his breakfast, a young Indigenous girl who presented him with a medallion from the Sioux Nation, and even the folks who are in residence in Elvis’s childhood home. What emerges from these conversations is that things are not looking good in the United States of America.

James Carville notes the stunning disparity between the country, some 40 years ago and now, remarking with finality, “The American dream is gone.” The residents of Tupelo, Mississippi, who have made something of a cottage industry of Elvis, appear to agree. When asked how things are going, they answer, “Like shiiiiit. Tupelo’s gone to hell.”

The question underlying the narrative is what happened? Jarecki’s film sets out to look for answers, beginning with the idea of the pursuit of happiness.

As Greil Marcus, the author of Dead Elvis explains, via a quote from Herman Melville: “The declaration of Independence makes a difference.” Meaning that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, fundamental to the American political and cultural experiment, was not only a bold statement of difference but a critical part of this upstart nation’s identity. “Elvis Presley acts out those laws in our own time,” says Marcus. It is an idea reiterated by historian Steve Fraser, who says, “The American experiment which begins in 1776 is a remarkable piece of political invention and imagination.”

The notion that happiness is a God-given right for every American threads its way through the film. In an early interview a question is posed to Elvis, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” The Elvis-ish answer: “I suppose, the most important thing in a person’s life is happiness.”

And, as if on cue, the Rolls breaks down and has to be loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck and towed towards the next town. It may seem a little on the nose, but as the people being interviewed laugh and make jokes the director continues his quest, setting forth from the beginning of Elvis’s life with a tour of his old neighbourhood, his high school, the black church where he learned to sing and finally a visit to Sun Records, where his precipitous vault to fame and fortune truly began.

Certain themes emerge, such as Elvis bridging black and white America. But herein, differing perspectives begin to circle like boxers with the likes of Ethan Hawke squaring off against Van Jones, who demands of the filmmaker, “Why do you care so much about rescuing Elvis Presley? As a black kid seeing a white man take black music and become famous and not do anything for black people was a horrible offence.”

Chuck D looks on with a jaundiced expression and explains his feelings about Elvis appropriating black music. “Elvis was a hero to most. But he never meant shit to me you see. Straight up racist that sucker was.” David Simons rejoins matter-of-factly, “The entire American experience is cultural appropriation.”

The film underscores the argument that the American dream was built on the back of a slave state and apartheid nation with images of lynching, Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, and footage of King Kong, a lilywhite lady in hand, rampaging through the streets of New York.

But if race is one aspect of the Elvis saga, an even larger element is money. As a number of interviewees note, it was always about making more money. As a bigger stage beckoned, enter Colonel Tom Parker, the ultimate promoter/exploiter. Parker’s Faustian bargain took hold when RCA paid off Sam Phillips at Sun Records, rawness was replaced with slickness and Elvis became a product, cross-branded in countless ways to reach as many consumers as possible.

Herein the third major theme of the film makes its grand entrance: mass media. As actor Ethan Hawke explains, sprawled in the front seat of the Rolls, America’s greatest export shifted from agriculture to entertainment. The film asserts that it was Elvis moving to New York and launching a sex attack on American television, via The Ed Sullivan Show, that truly remade the cultural landscape. The combination of sex, music and media exposure exploded like a bomb and arguably changed the world, paving the way for the seismic shifts of the 1960s.

The film assembles a cavalcade of different film and television personalities to attest to this version of events. One of the most oddly thoughtful is Mike Myers, who offers a Canadian immigrant view of America and Elvis: “America is fantastic at creating a mission statement. There’s a messianic need to spread this around the world. It’s about the individual. It’s about power, and powering over. Rome ruled the world with that phalanx formation, Britain with the three-masted ship, and American has ruled the world with the moving image.”

As Dan Rather wistfully recounts, “Boy, it’s about the money … It’s … about … the money.” An idea illustrated by scenes of Warhol’s Triple Elvis print selling for $73 million at auction. And here is where happiness flies out the window as Alec Baldwin, besieged by throngs of tourists wanting selfies, explains “Rich, famous, adored, women everywhere, admired and talented. You can have a list of 19 things, and the 20th one that’s missing is your Achilles heel.”

While the idea of having famous folk analyze one of the widely known people on the planet makes a certain kind of insular sense, none of this is particularly revelatory.

As the ‘60s dawned with anti-war protests and the civil rights movement, Elvis began to fade from public attention. His position on the Vietnam War, unlike that of Muhammad Ali, was decidedly apolitical. Tamed, and rendered insipid by television and terrible movies, Elvis moved from cultural outlier to crooning lapdog.

From here the film takes a sudden lurch forward to the 2016 U.S. election, stating that the template of fame, money, power that first coalesced around Elvis underwent metastatic growth, ballooning into the current convergence of entertainment and politics. It is a bit of a narrative jolt, and even as the film maintains that the world has become a business, supporting its argument with another flash cut of images culled from film (The Wolf of Wall Street), advertising and television, questions begin to arise.

As rapper Immortal Technique bluntly states, “If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we’re about to OD.” It’s an idea echoed also by Van Jones, who says, if America is indeed the new Rome, “Elvis is at the centre of that… The politics of today, are the politics of grief, and nostalgia and lament for something that seems to be slipping away, this is an empire in decline.”

Things begin to fracture, corresponding to Elvis’s epic fall from grace. The King’s twilight years in Vegas, when Fat Elvis became the predominating metaphor, are again aptly summed up by Mike Myers (who knew he was so thoughtful?). “Celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity. It’s toxic, and when you get to Vegas, it’s the condensed soup version of any idea that human beings have had,” says Myers. “It’s the sludge of making things.”

Strangely enough, in watching Jarecki’s film I found myself thinking about a recent story about a sunflower farm in Hamilton, Ont. that became an Instagram sensation. Waves upon successive waves of people, wanting to take photos amongst the sea of heavy yellow flowers, trampled the place flat. What was once beautiful and wonderful, drawing folks in, who wanted some of that quality for themselves, became the source of its own destruction.

As a meditation on the nature of fame and excess, The King doesn’t offer much more than this kind of analogy. At some point, you want Jarecki to come out and state what the hell he’s actually learned instead of relying on endless montages, and interviews with people who offer insights that aren’t much deeper than a mud puddle.

Sure, overwhelming corporate forces have enshrined things not worth worshipping to the highest order. Certainly, money, power and fame have a corrosive effect on even the strongest of personalities. In this, a better, more elegant film about the nature of celebrity is Maria by Callas. The diva’s own letters, journals and interviews supply the film’s narrative, and through these she offers an incredibly profound and thoughtful assessment of what it means to become an icon. It is a curious from of dissociation that kills even as it attracts.

Ultimately, The King falls prey to the very thing it purports to examine: how myth can overtake reality, and image becomes everything. Elvis’s silver ghost of Rolls-Royce becomes a metaphor for the film itself, a vehicular white whale that slides through the American landscape like a beast from the deep. As the final fusillade of images unfurl, set to an unhinged performance of Unchained Melody, the idea of a country riven by difference and shattered by its own internal contradiction becomes almost too much to take. Romanticism consumes everything, and any deeper, knottier ideas fall by the roadside.

As a child, I didn’t understand the hysteria attached to Elvis. And so it is still. The King doesn’t make one reassess the nature of fame, or the particular mythologies that America clings to, in this, its twilight hour. Rather it bolsters them, burnishing them even brighter, so that they shine like the reflection of empty sun.

Eugene Jarecki is a better, smarter filmmaker than The King would have you believe, but this work is part of a larger moment in American documentary cinema. There are a number of films released this year, with a whole whack still to come, that are seemingly obsessed with the past, and in particular with a deep and abiding sense of mournfulness and melancholy. The King joins a very long line of movies that are looking backwards for answers.

But in all frankness, I am rather tired of this rearview mirror perspective. There isn’t a whole lot there that we haven’t already eaten and digested a few times over. It’s far more interesting to look forward. In this, there are a couple of films that go far beyond mere sentiment, and actually make a cogent and sustained effort at analysis, and even, better, offer something genuinely new.

Equating the American democratic experiment that launched with the ethos of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with the story of Elvis, who started as a lean mean sex machine, full of unbridled raw talent, and joy, and ended up dead on a toilet at age 42, stuffed full of pills, and deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, is just a little too easy.

Elvis is really dead, and it’s time to let him go.

The King opens at the Vancity Theatre on Friday, Aug. 3.  [Tyee]

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