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New Elvis Presley Documentary The King Tells the Story of a Musical Legend

Director Eugene Jarecki tells us what to expect from his revealing new film.
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In many ways, The King is a movie about Elvis Presley. Throughout the thoughtful, moving documentary, out June 22 from director Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In, Reagan), the story of how the young man born in Mississippi went on to become a global superstar is told by a dazzling array of fans including Alec Baldwin, James Carville and Emmylou Harris. Each slides into the back of Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V and talks about his life, his work, and his impact. Concurrently, Jarecki is telling the story of the United States and its similarities to Presley himself, from scrappy origins to worldwide prominence—and peppered with some inescapable growing pains as well.

Here Jarecki tells T&C about how he acquired one of music's most famous automobiles, what he learned from making this movie, and what Elvis Presley has taught him about the future of our country.

How did the idea of using Elvis Presley as a window into the American experience—including things happening four decades after he died—come about?

Very often, the movie you end up making comes out of the previous movie you made. Over the course of my career I’ve made the American Dream my focus, and specifically I felt that there’s an opportunity through a certain kind of movie making to stand up for the American Dream against that which threatens it. The American story is a long story of the dream and all that’s stacked against it, and I suppose that’s a window into the same collision going on and the human condition itself. America has been this experiment at the extremes of that. There’s something so essential about Elvis Presley’s relationship to the American Dream, and once you start thinking about America through the lens of Elvis, to a guy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Suddenly everything speaks volumes in allegory and metaphor about the way in which his rise and fall—his majesty, his complexity, his challenges—are ours and our nation’s.

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Elvis Presley in the army.

Were you always planning to make the movie play out over the course of a cross-country road trip?

I was on the road promoting a previous film and showing it to audiences across the country, and every now and then I would talk about America in a sort of metaphorical way, linked to Elvis Presley, and I saw that that connected with people. One day I was making such a speech in a mill town in Pennsylvania and an older man came up and he said, “Is that your next film? That idea really struck me hard.” And then shortly the idea of the film was born. That was long before the idea of a road trip, that came later.

At what point did the car come in? How do you even go about getting Elvis’s Rolls Royce?

Well, we were making a film about Elvis and it was a poetic film and a reflective film, but all of a sudden it became possible to put a real engine under the hood of that film when this car became available. The movie bought the car hoping that it would sell the car in the end, and the good news is the car has found a wonderful gestational home at the end of all this. We didn’t know that would happen at the time, so we took a real risk and had the film buy the car as part of its budget, and then we suddenly had this extraordinary automobile on our hands. It wasn’t just any car. And it wasn’t the usual car you would associate with Elvis. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, asked, “Why don’t you take one of his Cadillacs?” And that’s a natural question because those are the cars we identify as being what belonged to Elvis and that fit the era and that bring us back to a nostalgia for a better time, for something more rosy. But what better time was that?

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A scene from The King.

If I had driven a Cadillac across the country, I could’ve made a nice biopic of Elvis, but it wouldn’t have broken new ground and it wouldn’t have made you think twice at how we got where we are today in America. Whereas the Rolls Royce is a car fit for a king, and not just any king, but a lost, bloated, self-heartbroken king. I think it symbolizes a lot of what went wrong for Elvis in the dominance of his life by power and money. And I think American life has been dominated by power and money, so to drive this power and money machine across the country rather than the idealistic other options we had… seemed it would hold the deepest resonance for where we have come from and where we’ve ended up.

You mentioned David Simon, and one of the interesting things as a viewer of the movie is to see the various characters who have really big thoughts on Elvis in a way that you might not expect. How did you do your casting?

Everywhere we went, we would roll into town without a Rolodex and without an agenda and without a plan, and there was something appropriately innocent and open about that. I think if we’d had more of a plan or a script, the film would’ve run the risk of being too made-to-measure. And I didn’t want anything prefab, I wanted home-cooked, whiskey, anything-could-happen jeopardy in this film. I wanted to know that the car might break down, which it did many times.

This is a deep dive into the meaning of America as well as being a biographic look at aspects of Elvis’s life, so I knew there were certain key people in his world that you couldn’t do without. You couldn’t make a film about Elvis without his best friend Jerry Schilling or George Klein or Scotty Moore who was in his band. You couldn’t make a film about Elvis, to the contrary, without talking to Chuck D, who represents in many ways the modern critique of Elvis. Everywhere we went, we would find key personages who brought a certain quality of the place and therefore the quality that Elvis’s time in that place brings to his emanation story.

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Eugene Jarecki.

What did you come away from this with that you hadn’t expected to?

If you’d asked me that a year ago, it would be different than what I’d answer today. If you ask me it today, the most surprising thing I took away from the film was optimism. If you take the metaphor in the film to its logical conclusion, it would’ve appeared that Elvis had died on the toilet. That America’s days had come to a close, its democracy. Now we were entering a strange new chapter as some sort of warped, gold-plated oligarchy. I didn’t think that I would possibly feel, over the time between then and now, the kind of renewed optimism that I have come to feel.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Adam Rathe
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