In the new documentary “The King,” writer-director Eugene Jarecki takes Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce on a ride across America. Along the way, Jarecki talks to commentators like James Carville and Van Jones, musicians John Hiatt and Chuck D and actors Alec Baldwin and Ethan Hawke about Presley’s continued influence on America.
“Elvis was the epitome of the American dream for so long, and I grew up with that deep love that Americans have for him,” Jarecki says. “And as I got older and started to take stock more closely, I had to ask myself about many dreams and about many nostalgic ideas. How true are they still today? What do they mean to me today?”
On Elvis as a symbol of the fall of the American Dream
“He’s like a canary in the coal mine. We should have taken our notes when Elvis was destroyed by the very forces that are destroying America today — unchecked greed, the lust for power and money — being placed on a pedestal above real priorities of the people, by the people, for the people. Priorities to which we should be devoted. Instead, this is a country that has an out-of-control love of power and money, and we have allowed that to empower the .00001 percent to run this country into a horror show at the expense of everyone but themselves.”
On Elvis’ birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi
“We took Elvis’ Rolls-Royce across America, and I wanted to make sure that we followed his ghost in a way across the American landscape today to really take stock if Elvis were alive, and he wandered through those same places, what would the world look like? And so of course, we began in Tupelo, where Elvis was born, and where he was marinated in a poor community of farmers. Particularly, he was marinated in the black community as well, which affected him musically, culturally and socially. And we wanted to really get a feel for that, and boy did we get a feel as soon as we got out of that car.”
On when music producer Sam Phillips discovered Elvis
“He had been trying to introduce white Americans, mass Americans to a black sound, which he understood had such extraordinary depth of contribution to be made, but he couldn’t get black artists over. He was struggling and struggling, as Chuck D points out in the film. And then along came this guy who, as Chuck D says, you could package this black sound with a white face. Sam Phillips was no idiot. He saw a marketing opportunity, where for Elvis, I think, there was a real genuine musical love and connection.”
On how “Hound Dog” represents the white theft of black culture
“And isn’t that the story of black America? And isn’t that the story of the white theft of black culture? That which gets popularized and gets the money thrown behind it and the one who gets named ‘The King’ isn’t always the one we would think of as the more groundbreaking, the more remarkable, the deeper.
“Elvis’ [version of ‘Hound Dog’] matters. Elvis was groundbreaking. The way that Elvis took a black sound and made it his own, it was an amazing moment of cultural sharing. You know, there’s been a lot of talk about racism and Elvis. And Chuck D is in the film in many ways to help us understand that better because what Chuck D points out, that I think is so valuable, is that at the time Elvis did songs like ‘Hound Dog’ when he was doing music that came out of a black musical tradition, it was an amazingly courageous and daring thing for a white guy to be doing. So we want to commend that. But it’s totally different to then look at the neverending theft by white America of blackness and of stealing from black people their culture, stealing the black people themselves as we once did, stealing their labor, stealing so much from black people. And Elvis finds himself in the crosshairs of that discussion, perhaps by no fault other than having been [an] actually genuinely inspired person, but we have real accusations to make about the white music system and how it’s hurt black people.”
On why Elvis turned away from music and toward Hollywood films
“He was seduced. And I think because he was a country boy, he was vulnerable to the seductions of power and money. Emmylou Harris is so magnificent in the film, and one of the things she points out is that when this happened to Elvis — being a country boy and suddenly exploding into supernova levels of power and success — it had never happened to anybody before. He had no role model. And anybody’s heart has to go out to young Elvis Presley trying to deal with the whole world suddenly being laid out before you. How are you supposed to keep your wits together and maintain your authenticity, the very thing that made you great?”
On how Elvis’ downturn symbolizes where America went wrong
“When he hit the world, this is one of the most beautiful people anybody had ever looked at, and he’s also coinciding with the explosion of the mass media invention in America. We are unleashing levels of power through cinema and television and radio that the world has never really experienced before, and we’re combining that with the fire power of such a truly beautiful, majestic, authentic creature — this Elvis Presley. What is an Elvis Presley? It’s a funny name with this amazing figure who’s part black, part white, looks like a Greek statue one second, looks vaguely like a woman the next second.
“And so there’s no question why we fell in love with him at a time. But I’ll be honest with you, when I see the older — he wasn’t that old; he was just 42 when he died — he just looks like life has beaten him up. And I think it’s because you take that beautiful, innocent, authentic soul, and you put him through things that nobody had been through before. There are the seeds of how America herself has gone wrong, and he’s like the battering ram of all that. He’s at the front of it taking the first incredible wave of seductions and undermining and abuse, from carbohydrates to drugs to consumption to vanity to violence. It’s all falling on Elvis. But that older person, that 42-year-old person, who’s so talked about as kind of the fat Elvis, I find him incredibly beautiful, too. And he sings at the end of the film ‘Unchained Melody,’ and it’s unbearably beautiful what he offers us.”
On what became of Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce
“I got a call one day that there was a buyer for the car, and I was adamant that we only sell the car for the exact cost that we had put into the car in buying it, in restoring it, in dealing with what we had done to it in filming, which was considerable. So we’ve restored the car. We had done all that. And I said, ‘Will the buyer go for that?’ ‘Yep. They’ll go for the price, but they need it right away.’ And I said, ‘Why do they need it right away? We’re about to release the film. I want the car around for the release of the film.’ They said, ‘Nope, they need it right away.’ I said, ‘Who are these people?’
“Turned out, hold onto your hat, the buyer is the Seminole Indian nation of the state of Florida, who have bought the failed Trump Taj Mahal casino and hotel in Atlantic City, a complete bankruptcy of the former reality star that is now in the Oval Office. They have built on its site the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and they have made Elvis’ Rolls the centerpiece of the Hard Rock. And they’re also playing on the walls of all of the, all around it on a 160-foot, wrap-around screen, they’re playing images of our journey with the car throughout our film to get to that place.
“And best of all, we even agreed that they would make a donation to Stax Music Academy, which is the sort of African-American roots of music that touched Elvis so very much, in the purchase of the car. So we’ve been able to give a very substantial donation to Stax to continue the incredible work that they’re doing in the inner city of Memphis.”