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A new documentary about 'The King' finds links between Elvis Presley and the decline of the American Dream

A new documentary about 'The King' finds links between Elvis Presley and the decline of the American Dream
Director Eugene Jarecki in the L.A. Times Studio during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in January. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Eugene Jarecki doesn’t do small stories. The documentary director calls himself “a big-game hunter,” confidently tackling the sort of big abstract concepts and systems that don’t seem to lend themselves to film.

“I often feel like the elephant in the room is being danced around,” he said recently. “We talk about a microscopic incident rather than the bigger picture of which that incident is only a case study.

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“All my life I have found that people think that there is greater dignity working in the particular than in the universal. But my fear is that when we work in the particular, we ignore the capacity for a broader systems analysis.”

With “Why We Fight,” he examined American imperialism and the military-industrial complex through the prism of the Iraq war, and “The House I Live In” diagnosed the four-decade failure of the U.S. war on drugs and the exponential growth of America’s prison system. Both documentaries won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a Peabody Award.

In his latest film, released by Oscilloscope Laboratories, “The King,” which opened Friday in Los Angeles, the system in question is America itself. Jarecki fashions an associative, collage-like narrative about the meteoric rise and perceived decline of the American Dream – told largely via the story of Elvis Presley.

When Presley’s Rolls-Royce came up for auction, the production purchased it for an undisclosed price hoping to sell it upon the project’s completion.

Sitting behind the wheel of the car, the filmmaker zigzags the country from Tupelo, Miss., to Hollywood, picking up along the way an assortment of talking (and singing) heads – Greil Marcus, Chuck D and Ashton Kutcher are among the eclectic crew – who opine on Presley’s iconic power, the politics of race, and the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.

Robert Bradley, left, and Matthew J. Ruffino in Detroit in Eugene Jarecki's "The King."
Robert Bradley, left, and Matthew J. Ruffino in Detroit in Eugene Jarecki's "The King." (David Kuhn / Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Jarecki, an ardent intellectual who speaks in authoritative complete sentences, is also something of an expert on defense and foreign policy issues; he founded the Eisenhower Project, a think tank dedicated to antiwar strategy, and is the author of a book called “The American Way of War.”

He attributes his “organic, insatiable, outraged appetite for social justice” to having grown up the descendant of Jews who escaped the Holocaust on one side and Russia on the other. His brothers are also acclaimed, socially conscious filmmakers – Andrew made “Capturing the Friedmans” and HBO’s “The Jinx,” and Nicholas directed the Richard Gere financial thriller “Arbitrage.”

In conversation, Jarecki remained enthralled by his film’s central metaphor. “Almost every movie I’ve made is passionately focused on the state of the American Dream,” he said. “Who is more definitive of the American Dream than Elvis Presley?”

Though he sees the film as a “loving portrait” of the singer, Jarecki said that the trailer for “The King” has already provoked a “vitriolic and hateful and angry” response. Presley, of course, has been the subject of countless films and documentaries, most of them more traditional than Jarecki’s, including the three-hour “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” which premiered on HBO in the spring.

“In many ways, what I seem to have attacked is a mythology about Elvis, which is really a mythology about our sense of the American Dream,” Jarecki said over lunch this month in West Hollywood. “ What they’re afraid of is I might grab their Kool-Aid and take it away from them. And we do drink Kool-Aid in this society. We delude ourselves a lot about who we are and what we’re up to. We’ve been doing outrageous things all along, alongside beautiful and majestic things, and Elvis is all wrapped up in that – the beautiful, the ugly, the extraordinary, the pedestrian.”

But Presley isn’t the whole story. “The King” organizes itself around another bigger-than-life figure, one who lords over all the gaudy excesses of our post-democratic society. He is currently the president of the United States, and though he appears in “The King,” Jarecki would rather not refer to him by name.

“We have our airwaves dominated by figures who traffic in chaos,” he said. “And it’s important to marginalize those voices. This film would be the same today with or without [his election]. When I started the film, that person was a laughing stock and a nuisance ruining the New York skyline. He wasn’t headed for the White House.” The collective delusion is underlined by a moment in the film when Alec Baldwin, Donald Trump’s most prominent comic interpreter, says there’s no way the man will become president.

Elvis Presley in the Army in a scene from "The King."
Elvis Presley in the Army in a scene from "The King." (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Even if Trump hadn’t won, Jarecki said “The King” would be relevant today, “because no country that is healthy could possibly have come close to ending up with this guy.” He extended the metaphor: “We’d gone to the doctor, we knew we were already sick, and on the morning we headed to the appointment, we noticed an unbelievable new symptom. It’s a force multiplier of the original case. We need to rid ourselves of the distraction of being able to hang it all on the one obvious symptom.”

Still, the election and its aftermath had a material effect on Jarecki’s film. “The King” originally premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival under the title “Promised Land.” In the intervening year, the director re-cut it into “a vastly different film,” and despite the erasure of the patriotic-sounding title, he said it’s a decision born of optimism.

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“I’m not in the business of doing an autopsy on the American Dream,” he said. “I’m in the business of promoting healthy democracy, if I can. The film wasn’t finished with that idea. As I continued editing, I started to see the bigger picture, a context into which [Trump’s election] figured.

“And I would say, confidently, that an extraordinary thing has happened in the year since then. In that year, alongside all of the horrors that this chapter of American history has introduced us to, I have also seen, in counterreaction to the horrors, the birth of the most significant social movements I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

The Chosen Few Children play in East Los Angeles in Eugene Jarecki's "The King."
The Chosen Few Children play in East Los Angeles in Eugene Jarecki's "The King." (David Kuhn / Oscilloscope Laboratories)

With the release of the film, Jarecki was able to complete another project. As of this month, the 1963 silver Rolls-Royce has finally found a new home. Jarecki’s team sold it to the Seminole Indian Nation of Florida, who will make the car the centerpiece of the brand-new Hard Rock Café and Casino in Atlantic City — on the grounds of the former Trump Taj Mahal.

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Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls-Royce in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado.
Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls-Royce in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado. (Taylor Krauss / Oscilloscope Laboratories)
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