I always enjoy a great metaphor. There are few literary, poetic, and cinematic devices that are more satisfying to employ. If used correctly, a metaphor can provoke fantastic amounts of thought, humour, and reflection in a reader or viewer. The caveat to using metaphor – either as a descriptive device or as a means to link two seemingly dissimilar strands of thought – is that they have to make logical, emotional, or artistic sense to have any sort of lasting impact. A metaphor needs something to back up its comparisons and/or allusions. Otherwise, it’s just an incongruous thing to say or do that just sits there looking pretty and doing nothing.
I once had a heated discussion with a fellow film critic about the nature of metaphor, both visual and narrative. My assertion that a certain film’s admittedly gorgeous visual charms and narrative grace were hollow because the film’s central metaphor for love and life made nary a lick of sense on any level. My argument was dismissed out of hand with the response: “Metaphors don’t have to make sense.” My blood has boiled about that statement ever since I heard it. A metaphor, visual or oral, is a device used to move or provoke intelligent thought. If the metaphor isn’t decipherable on any level, it’s (A) not really a metaphor, but rather a musing, and (B) it has failed to elicit an emotional or intellectual response. Next to people using the words “literally” or “ironic” inappropriately, nothing in the English language makes my skin crawl more than an inappropriate handling of metaphor.
This reminiscing about a semantic argument you probably don’t care about brings me to Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, The King, which is nothing if not upfront about how its central metaphor might not make sense to anyone other than the filmmaker. Attempting to draw parallels between the rise and fall of famed musical icon Elvis Presley and the “crumbling of the American dream,” Jarecki (Why We Fight, The House I Live In) uses “the king of rock and roll” as a literary lens to examine modern society. I’m not sure if Jarecki’s metaphor was ever going to work, considering that all of his tenuous comparisons are both frivolous and impossible to properly define (since no two people will ever agree on the definition of “the American dream”), but there are bits and pieces scattered throughout The King that make some interesting points.
The approach employed by Jarecki is initially interesting. Travelling to towns and cities across America that influenced Presley and his career in The King’s own 1966 Rolls Royce, Jarecki simultaneously looks at the musical icon’s past and the present state of every location that impacted him. Presley was born into a poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, where today a large class divide finds some residents exasperated by The King’s legacy. He moved to the equally impoverished Memphis, Tennessee (currently boasting an unenviable 29% unemployment rate), where he studied black music at the height of segregation, swiping his future influences liberally and never once giving back to the community that provided the sound propelling him to superstardom. Presley, like many modern entertainers, branched out from music to making a decade’s worth of terrible movies in Los Angeles; transforming from a recording artist and into a sellable brand, losing a great deal of personality and authenticity in the process. He was heralded as the living embodiment of the American dream by many, and his service in the U.S. military by extension was symbolic of what it takes to protect that dream. Even his later, plumper years in Las Vegas were endemic of a sea change for the city of sin, one where the mafia gradually moved out and prestige projects moved into the fabled strip.
Each portion of Presley’s life could make for interesting metaphorical connections to any number of historical, psychological, or literary concepts. No one lives a life that equally fruitful and tragic without becoming a cautionary tale, a form of literature and cinema that endures precisely because of the emotional and intellectual responses people derive from them. The problem with The King as an admittedly admirable and atypical documentary is that Jarecki starts with a single metaphor and proceeds to pile on multiple additional metaphors that confuse and distract. The backbone of The King is to compare the decline of Elvis Presley’s health and career to the current economic, political, social, and moral decline of the American empire. But outside of comparing someone addicted to fame and creature comforts to a society that has become addicted to capitalism, Jarecki’s sprawling, convoluted, and messy central metaphor is tenuous at best and tedious at worst.
Every moment where Jarecki is able to directly compare Presley’s past to America’s present is satisfying, and some of the many talking heads trotted out to speak on such matters make some keenly observant points. The King deserves a lot of credit for not being a biography with hagiographic leanings, and instead attempting something a lot more sociological in nature. It’s a study of fame and fortune that’s keenly aware that success (and its lasting effects long after someone’s death) doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Early moments where Jarecki sees firsthand the poverty in Tupelo and Memphis – places where Elvis is celebrated, but he never once gave back to – are powerful enough to sustain their own film. Equally interesting is comparing Presley to more politically involved celebrities of the time, like Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Muhammad Ali. While they used their notoriety to talk about causes they believed in, Presley staunchly refused to engage in political or social discussion. The fact that the biggest musical artist of the era refused to speak up on anything potentially controversial speaks volumes then and now.
Unfortunately, The King has many miles to travel and far too many people that Jarecki wants to talk to. The selection of interview subjects throughout The King, many of whom Jarecki interviews in the backseat of Presley’s perpetually breaking down car, is journalistic overkill. There are plenty of scholars and Elvis historians giving necessary, sometimes curiously contradictory background information. Chuck D and Van Jones are indispensible dissenting opinions when it comes to discussing Presley’s legacy as the “white man with a negro sound and negro feel” that record producer Sam Phillips wanted to market to mass audiences during times of segregation.
But there are also far too many uninteresting musical performances conducted in The King’s car that pad things out and never add much outside of extra running time. When the performances stop and the musicians are interviewed, rarely do they have anything that can tie into what Jarecki is trying to accomplish. Worse still, there are a handful of celebrities from outside the musical world trotted out to talk about celebrity and American politics. Of these, Ethan Hawke fares the best, rattling off stories about Presley with energy and gusto; like someone you’ve sat down to bullshit with over some beers. But an intensely uppity Alec Baldwin, a depressed looking Ashton Kutcher, and a playful, but unnecessary talk with Mike Meyers (who’s really on hand just to compare Canada to America for what feels like the eight billionth time) are distracting both from Presley’s story and from Jarecki’s core thesis. Not even a gorgeous looking interview with the usually erudite Dan Rather atop the Empire State Building is able to add any narrative or metaphorical substance. Some of the things that come up in conversation tie in, but most of it amounts to people who just really like to hear the sounds of their own voice, regardless of what they’re talking about. For a film attempting to show how success has wide ranging impact on society at large, almost all of the film’s showier interviews seem to exist in the same vacuous space that Jarecki wants to avoid.
Everything about The King begs for some semblance of refinement and editing. At nearly two hours in length (and it certainly feels much, much longer), Jarecki spends a lot of time rambling with nothing artful or thoughtful enough to sustain all the wheel spinning. Even on a technical level, The King is overly ambitious, incorporating an intricate camera rig on the Rolls Royce (something Jarecki clearly wants to show off, partially because it’s too ungainly to hide) and several cars that follow along. When watching many of the musical performances and celebrity interviews that don’t need to be here, it’s hard to stay in the moment. It’s easy to let the mind wander and contemplate what could have been if Jarecki had just stuck to the thesis he wanted to prove in the first place. By showing the heavily artificial and rigorously designed nuts and bolts of his name dropping project, Jarecki, possibly unwittingly, ends up calling out his own level of privilege and how he has been afforded to make such a film about “the American condition” in the first place. The longer it drags on, the more tone deaf and oblivious The King becomes, in spite of smattering of interesting points and threads that could have developed into a better documentary. When a film wants to talk about fame’s connection to poverty, race, and national identity, being flashy for no reason feels like poor form.
To Jarecki’s credit, I think he knows exactly the kind of muddled film that he’s made, and that he has made it from the heart, which is somewhat endearing. One of the best interviews from an unlikely subject comes when the Rolls breaks down and the film’s road crew chief has to tow it on the back of a flatbed. The driver, with the camera turned onto him, flat out says that he has no clue what kind of film Jarecki is making and that the director probably doesn’t know what the documentary is supposed to be saying, either. He also has a great speech about how the traditional, old school mentality that working hard will make everyone successful is the biggest lie you can tell someone. This mea culpa and moment of self-awareness in an otherwise obtuse film speaks volumes, and makes many of The King’s flaws somewhat forgivable.
Part of the reason for The King’s metaphorical leanings seems to be because Jarecki was filming in the waning days of the last U.S. presidential election. That provides a good amount of bedrock for Jarecki’s anti-biographical thesis, but upon it all the filmmaker builds a lot of potentially distracting and unnecessary shrines to the very form of capitalism that the film seeks to dismantle. See what I did there? Bedrock. Building. Shrines atop a basis that was meant for something good? I don’t mean to spell it out for you, but that’s a metaphor. And yes, they do have to make some kind of sense, unlike this film’s closing musical montage, which cuts sharply from Barney the Dinosaur to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, not because there’s any link, but because they’re just two iconic images that people will recognize.
The King opens in Toronto at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, July 13, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The King: