Posted August 9, 2018 by Jeff in Flicks

The King: Eugene Jarecki Explores a Rise and Fall

The King
The King

Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, two-time Sundance Grand Jury winner Eugene Jarecki bought Presley’s 1962 Rolls-Royce at an auction and took a road trip to some of Presley’s old haunts, visiting places such as Sun Studios in Memphis and Las Vegas. The King strives to compare and contrasts the rise and fall of Elvis with the rise and fall of the United States. It includes interviews with celebs such as Alec Baldwin, Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, Mike Myers and Dan Rather and performances by Emi Sunshine and the Rain, Leo Bud Welch, Earlice Taylor, Stax Music Academy Singers, M. Ward, John Hiatt, Loveful Heights, Immortal Technique, The Handsome Family, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Justin Merrick and the Stax Academy All-Stars. In a recent phone interview, Jarecki spoke about the film.

How’d you come up with the concept for the movie?
It’s a natural extension of the work I’ve done previously in my career. My family fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s on the one side. Then, at the turn of the 20thcentury, they fled Russia on the other side. The American Dream was a beacon across the ocean. It was immediately clear to us when we came to this country that the American Dream is unfinished business and an incomplete story for so many people, including minatory groups. It’s not available to everyone. My entire life has been devoted to human rights advocacy. When we see America falls short, we recognize the ripple effect that that can have across the globe.

But what about the Rolls Royce and Elvis?  
I recognize it’s a big leap, but in some ways it’s not. Who more embodies the American Dream than Elvis Presley? I grew up loving Elvis. I was marinated in it when I was young. When I got older, I heard Chuck D and then knew more about the challenges my family faced when they came to the country. As a result, I wanted to consider a film about Elvis. My love began a tough love. How did something so beautiful become so shallow and marginalized?

How’d you get the Rolls?
We were making a film that had nothing to do with the car. We were making a film and wanted to visit the places he had been and see it through the prism of Elvis’s life. One day, someone on my team said they read that Elvis’s Rolls Royce was going up for auction. I then realized we could turn it into the Great American Road Movie. I wanted to see what kind of perspectives we could add to the film.

In the film, David Simon says it should have been a Cadillac. It’s a valid point.
He figured out that there’s a certain poetry to the Cadillac. Cars are memory lane machines. They’re American Dream Machines and fuel nostalgia for the past. The Rolls represents how he left the country boy of his past. He’s now a king. Now, you have the bigger question of whether a country boy should have ever become a king. Should the country have become an empire? One became a king and one became an empire, both to their own detriment.

How many hours of footage did you film?
We had 2600 hours of footage. It was quite an undertaking. John Lennon famously said that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. I like to say that a good documentary is what happens to you when you’re making a mediocre documentary, assuming you have your wits about you.

A number of musicians perform from the back of the Rolls. What were your favorite performances?
I was so moved across the board. They all carry something profound. Of course, I’m particularly thrilled by the young people in the film who are not so well-known by the public yet. I really like Emi Sunshine and The Rain. They sing bluegrass music and do so with such incredible power. And also the young singers from the Stax Music Academy who sing “Chain of Fools” from the back of the car. They’re great performers. They’re something that Americans should take good pride in. It’s a standout organization giving people hope at a time when it’s hard to come by. Immortal Technique is more known to people but he’s a rapper’s rapper. Being able to feature his song is a great honor. His song talks about the world we live in today in a very engaged manner.

The election of Donald Trump takes place during the film. What it was like to work that into the mix?
He was not running for office when we started making the movie. We were making the movie and addressing what was dangerously wrong with American democracy when the election came along with all its absurd extensions. That election might have seemed daunting to women or a harrowing signal of a world out of control, but on his watch the most significant movement is born. You had kids protesting the NRA and teachers in red states talking about how our education is being shortchanged. These are seismic changes that have nothing to do with the two-party system. Amazing stuff was going on that I could never have foreseen.

The ground under our feet was literally falling like an earthquake.

If the American empire is in decline, it makes sense that people would turn to someone promising to restore to it to its former glory. 
The idea that that would happen with someone with no public service means that there’s some magic voodoo whereby the wealth will trickle down. Jeff Bezos makes a million dollars an hour. Amazon didn’t pay any federal tax last year. You see that kind of highway robbery at work. I don’t mean to single him out. It’s the highway robbery of modern America.

The film is so well crafted and beautiful. Talk about that side of things. 
The film is a love letter to America and to Elvis. It’s a tough love letter. I care about those things enough that I want to make a difference. If I had known Elvis, I would have tried to save him. As I get to know America and travel the country, I feel the same impulse. In order to do that, I have to convey my incredible love of the cities, of the grandeur of its people, of its monuments, of its small towns and farms, and forsaken inner cities. I have that Life magazine love of America.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].