It's usually a bad sign when critics start questioning your film before it's even finished. But director Eugene Jarecki had to endure worse. While making the documentary "The King," he actually got gruff from a member of his own film crew.
After a car breaks down, Jarecki takes the opportunity to ask the driver of the truck hauling it to be fixed what he thinks of the film so far. The crewman responds that he's not sure what Jarecki's intention is and doesn't really buy the tenuous analogy he's developed so far. Who needs film critics, huh?
Credit Jarecki for including the exchange in his meandering, overstuffed and sometimes fascinating film about Elvis Presley and America. The director seems to acknowledge that he may have bitten off way too much here but he still thinks the idea is worth chewing.
The idea is this: Get Elvis' old 1963 Rolls-Royce and invite a wide group of people to sit in its back seat and talk about Presley as they drive through key locations in The King's life, from his lowly beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, to his sad end in Graceland.
So far, so good. We get Emmylou Harris to call him a "Greek tragic figure" and Chuck D to explain why he once wrote blistering lyrics that Elvis was no "hero to me." John Hiatt even starts to cry in the back seat, profoundly sad for a fellow musician who was "trapped" in his fame.
But Jarecki seems to want more, something deeper and profounder. Perhaps the rise and fall of Elvis Presley is a reflection of post-World War II America as it morphed from small to imperial to then sick and bloated? Maybe he's even a reflection of the history of the entire country — from poor and fragile in 1776 to the hottest thing on the planet as a superpower to later addicted to pills and destined to die on a golden toilet at age 42? All this plays out as the Clinton-Trump election comes to its nail-biting conclusion, complete with CNN and Fox news announcements about the race, muddying the focus of the film. Are we Fat Elvis? Is Trump?
Throughout "The King ," you can feel Jarecki desperately working, slicing, trying to make connections. What could have been a gentle, personal travelogue is reworked and reworked until it's often guilty of the last sin of Elvis — excess. This film is cluttered with half-thoughts and tenuous connections, like footage from 1933's "King Kong" making frequent appearances without much purpose. (The King. In New York. OK, we get it).
The best parts are when African-American critics like Chuck D and Van Jones dig into Elvis, a man who made a fortune taking black music and making it palatable for whites. Yet Presley never marched for civil rights or used his fame to help the very people he plundered. Other valuable spots are when the filmmakers explore poverty, race and the decline of the American dream at the hands of corporations, slick imagery and heaps of cash. But, wait. Wasn't this supposed to be about Elvis?
There are also some curious appearances. Dan Rather is shot very cinematically along the skyline of Manhattan, but adds little. Ethan Hawke has some interesting stories about Elvis' time at Sun Records but they could have been told by studio boss Sam Phillips' son, who is weirdly not much included.
Speaking of Hawke, he's clearly a smart guy but what is he doing here? Why is Alec Baldwin in the Rolls-Royce? Mike Myers? They have interesting things to add as cultural observers but there are moments in "The King" where it seems like an extended episode of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."
The film weirdly toggles between speaking to real figures in Elvis' life — like friend George Klein and Presley's pianist Tony Brown — and discussing his cultural impact with presumably more exciting celebrities with questionable expertise. (Ashton Kutcher actually makes a powerful witness to the uncomfortable nature of sudden worldwide fame).
Then there's that moment when the Rolls-Royce breaks down and everyone tries to make THAT an analogy of post-industrial America. Actually, Jarecki comes into some good-natured ribbing for even using Elvis' Rolls-Royce, which is, of course, an English car. More than one observer wonders why he didn't use one of Presley's old Cadillacs, a more perfect symbol of America's trials and tribulations. That's what this whole film feels like — forever looking for an analogy that fits.
"The King," an Oscilloscope Labratories release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for language, some disturbing images and brief drug use." Running time: 109 minutes. One star out of four.