He divides and unifies, he inspires joy and indifference: There’s no one way to look at Elvis Presley and the explosion of change—musically, culturally, historically—he set off in mid-20th century America. More than 40 years after his death, Elvis isn’t an answer; he is, and always will be, a question. Was he the most gifted trailblazer of his or almost any era, or just a clever mimic who stole from black people? Was he a lithe charmer who shifted our notion of sex appeal or a sad, fat guy in a gold-drizzled white jumpsuit? Was he a poor kid who made it big or a hillbilly who didn’t know his place? Is he a legend or a joke? Elvis is so many possible things that he is the ultimate American possibility, a kind of spirit guide shaped from sound.
What does Elvis mean today? That’s the question—manageable on its surface but infinitesimally complicated below—that haunts documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki’s stirring, revitalizing film essay The King. Jarecki takes to the road in one of Elvis’s very own cars, a 1963 Rolls Royce, to pose some version of that question to performers like Chuck D and Ethan Hawke, to cultural critics and historians like Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick, to ordinary citizens living in the town where Elvis was born, Tupelo, Mississippi. Not everyone whom Jarecki seeks out is pro-Elvis: News commentator, writer and activist Van Jones expresses frustration with a man who owed his career to sounds pioneered by black people, but who couldn’t see fit to speak out on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t march with Martin Luther King Jr. as other white entertainers, like Marlon Brando and even eventual conservative Charlton Heston, did.
Elvis is a king with flaws: As an entertainer who became larger than life, he could have done more for a racially divided country. Yet the essence of Elvis is inclusive, an entreaty to America to strive to be its best possible self. That’s the truth Jarecki seeks to express in The King; damned if he doesn’t pull it off. When Jarecki travels to Tupelo to ask the people who live there what the American dream means to them, there’s no artifice behind the question, or the responses: In their answers they speak of love and peace, and of the importance of family. These are people who live with less rather than more, in the context of America’s relative affluence as a nation. But when they speak of striving to live a better life, they’re not talking about having more money, a bigger house, a better car. Their idea of the American dream is both as abstract and concrete as a song. It’s a thing that can leave you behind, maybe, but more likely it’s a thing that can get you through the day.
What Jarecki really wants to know, what he’s searching for in this ambitious work, is what Elvis means in the context of Trump’s America. He finds his answer not just in the words of Marcus or Chuck D—the latter of whom makes one of the most clear-eyed, impassioned statements about cultural appropriation you’re likely to hear—but in music. As he and that crew travel through the South and beyond in that Rolls—it breaks down more than once, as apt a metaphor for America as you could think of—he invites a number of singers and musicians to pile into the back seat. There’s Emi Sunshine, an adolescent country and bluegrass prodigy from Tennessee who performs with her band, the Rain: She’s like a mini Carter Family rolled into one little person. And a group of young black singers from the Stax Music Academy, an after-school and summer music program affiliated with the legendary South Memphis studio, roar through an a capella rendering of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”—not an Elvis song, though it’s one that he loved. It’s only fitting that these young people, also royalty, should at last be chauffeured in one of the King’s luxury vehicles. Perhaps he’s repaying some debts from beyond the grave.
What does Elvis have to do with Trump’s America? The best possible version of America—the one so many of us, including Elvis, have dreamed for and toward—seems endangered. We hear its belabored breathing every day. But singing is also a kind of breathing—and if you can breathe life into a corpse, well, it’s no longer a corpse, is it? That’s just one of the truths Jarecki expresses in The King. The movie’s final minutes come at you like a lightning bolt: Jarecki sets a montage of clips from the mid-20th-century and beyond—snapshots from the O.J. trial, from TV shows like Barney, from the Trump campaign—against Elvis’s 1977 live recording of “Unchained Melody,” made just two months before he died. At this point, Elvis looked his rock-bottom worst: Bloated and sleepy-eyed, he can barely lumber into place at the piano. But the sound that pours from this ragged body is as pure and as heartbreaking as a sunrise. Perceptive, probing and ultimately devastating, The King is for anyone who cares about where this country has been and where it’s headed. Time goes by so slowly—and time can do so much.