By Manohla Dargis | July 5, 2018 | The New York Times
Wildly ambitious, thoroughly entertaining and embellished with some snaky moves, Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The King” is a lot like its nominal subject, Elvis Presley. In part, it tells the familiar story of the poor little boy who became a king. But Jarecki has a second, larger and more complicated story he wants to address, too: that of the United States. Tying one man’s body to the body politic, he seeks to turn Presley’s life — from ravishing, thrilling youth to ravaging, putrefying fame — into the story of the country, an arc that takes the documentary from Graceland to Trumpland.
Why Elvis? For Jarecki, the answer seems to be, why not? Mostly, though, there is the 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V, which came into Jarecki’s sights a few years back and serves as both the documentary’s roving stage and silent co-star. It’s a silver beast: huge, cumbersome-looking and temperamental. (It breaks down.)
Jarecki, who is regularly seen and heard throughout the movie, never goes into how he got behind the wheel of this pricey collector’s item (now resold), which is too bad because it provokes your curiosity. He just invites you to hop in while he steers you cross-country, following ribbons of road and a time line that shifts from the past to the present and back again. The details of some of that history are as familiar as a fairy tale, like the shotgun shack in Tupelo, Miss., where Presley was born on Jan. 8, 1935.
Presley was the only surviving child of his beloved mother, Gladys, and his father, Vernon, who three years later was in prison for check forgery, just one of the many milestones that Jarecki passes as he quickly begins complicating his story. Working with a team of editors, he introduces Presley, the man and the myth, using an onslaught of archival images and sounds.
“The King” is at its strongest when Jarecki uses his material to build an actual argument. That’s what happens when he enters a juicy virtual discussion about Presley, white supremacy, black heritage and cultural appropriation.
Every documentary is also a chronicle of its own moment, and so it’s no surprise that throughout “The King” Jarecki restlessly looks at contemporary America as he tracks Presley’s path from Tupelo to Memphis, Nashville and beyond, and simultaneously heads toward Donald J. Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and beyond.
While most of the Presley experts Jarecki confers with are men (an unfortunate lapse), this otherwise generous, perceptive director, more than anything, clearly yearns to fit not only Elvis but also the whole wide world into his sweet ride.