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Graceless land

In ‘The King,’ Elvis in decline is a case study of America in decline



“The King” is a documentary about Elvis Presley, but that’s just barely scratching the surface. It’s also about America.

Eugene Jarecki’s fascinating film draws a straight line between Fat Elvis and the Trump era, with the former being a metaphor for the latter. It’s what makes this Elvis doc worth doing, even relevant, and much more than a polemical punchline.

There’s an inherent bias in the analogy, to be sure, but the comparison works to provoke introspection about the glory, tragedy, and spectacle of our national identity.

To understand Trump’s America as Fat Elvis, you have to consider both in their historical contexts. Jarecki, who has examined systemic American challenges before (“Why We Fight,” “The House I Live In”) does just that. With keen insight, such as setting Elvis interview sound-bites about himself against images of Americana, Jarecki shows the eerie parallels of each since Presley’s mid-20th century rise.

People’s views on both run just as varied and divisive.

White and black Americans frequently have different perspectives on our nation’s history. The same is true about Elvis, too. In the most generous light, Presley—who grew up poor in Tennessee, surrounded by black culture—is seen as the first to fuse the music of black and white, rich and poor, old and new.

But there’s another view, best summed up in the lyric by Public Enemy’s Chuck D (who’s interviewed at length in the film): “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me, you see / Straight up racist, that sucker was simple and plain / Motherf—k him and John Wayne!”

One side sees trailblazing genius, another sees cultural appropriation. How you see Elvis may very well be how you see America.

But Jarecki’s slate of interviewees—including musicians, actors, artists, and everyday folk—isn’t a simple contrast of ideological left and right. Arch-liberal TV producer and writer David Simon (“The Wire”) argues that Chuck D’s judgment is preposterously short-sighted, but African American political analyst Van Jones can’t segregate Presley from segregation. What else is he to make of Elvis being crowned King over Little Richard or Chuck Berry who, unlike Presley, wrote their own music?

Jarecki’s interview booth also speaks volumes: it’s Presley’s Rolls Royce, which keeps breaking down over the course of its cross-country trek (another metaphor). Ethan Hawke probably distills things best, and most bluntly, by zeroing in on money instead of race. That’s where Jarecki leans, too, particularly with Presley’s corrupt manager Colonel Tom Parker. He was the Trumpian figure that Elvis (a.k.a. America) made his Faustian bargain with. Yet even in bloated incoherence, Elvis could still show flashes of greatness.

As compelling as this correlation between Fat Elvis and Trump Nation is, even that’s too narrow. In the end, both are what they’ve always been: Rorschach tests. Everyone here has their own take on America, and all of them can point to Elvis as proof.

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