Review by David Ferguson
Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us in the United States have always loved a rags-to-riches success story … it’s the personification of the American Dream. The only thing we seem to enjoy more is tearing down the pedestals that we build for those folks, and then ripping apart their legacy. Acclaimed director Eugene Jarecki (WHY WE FIGHT, 2005) strains rigorously in his attempts to connect Elvis Presley selling out his talent for money with the transformation of the U.S. from a democracy to a crumbling capitalistic empire (likened to ancient Rome). The really interesting thing is that the film, despite being a staccato mess, is quite fascinating.
Director Jarecki’s gimmick here is that he is taking a musical and historic road trip in the 1963 Rolls Royce once owned by Elvis. Along the way, he picks up passengers – some of which are musicians who perform in the backseat. The passenger list includes James Carville, John Hiatt, M Ward, Linda Thompson (ex-girlfriend of Elvis), Immortal Technique, and “best friend” Jerry Schilling (a comical description if you’ve read his book).
Chuck D from Public Enemy is interviewed due to his famous lyric: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s**t to me”. The contradictions from this interview fit nicely with the contradictions throughout the film. George Klein takes Jarecki on a quick tour of Humes High School, and Ashton Kutcher babbles about fame – though he makes one spot on remark regarding the prison of fame, something much of the film seems to ignore. Producer Ethan Hawke spends a good amount of time on camera and in the front seat, while author and activist Van Jones seems narrowly focused on cultural appropriation and angry that Elvis never used his clout to help the minorities that influenced him.
Filmed in 2016, the film works hard to include the Presidential election, and we even see the sanctimonious Alec Baldwin adamantly proclaiming that Trump won’t win. Jarecki is himself an activist, and here he stretches to prove his points – tying together everything from Elvis’ induction into the Army to the Trump election more than a half-century later (and 40 years after his death).
The road trip kicks off in Elvis’ birthplace of Tupelo, where we meet some locals who talk about the lasting impact of Elvis on their town – a town still drenched in poverty. Memphis is next, and we hear about the 3 local kings: BB, Elvis and MLK. Jarecki even inserts a shot of the Rolls next to the Lorraine Motel. There is a terrific bit with the students from Stax Music Academy who perform “Chain of Fools” in the backseat. We then head to NYC and Nashville, capping off the musically creative portion of Elvis’ career. Next up is Hollywood, Hawaii, and finally Las Vegas.
At times, the film is just flat out weird. One segment force feeds parallels with the 1933 King Kong movie (yes, really), then Elvis as a tourist, and finally, Dan Rather’s all too familiar voice performing “America the Beautiful” … each piece featuring the Empire State Building. But just when a Bernie Sanders rally makes you want to turn off the film, we get an insightful Mike Myers effectively pointing out the hypocrisy of the American Dream as sold by the government, or David Simon questioning the choice of the Rolls over one of Elvis’ prized Cadillacs, or Sam Phillips’ (Sun Records) son re-telling the story of how his father lost Elvis to the carnival-barker Colonel Tom Parker (neither a Colonel nor a Parker).
Jarecki and co-writer Christopher St. John try to weave a tapestry of fame and money with cultural and societal shifts. Some segments work, while others fall flat. The editing of talking heads sometimes gives the feel of a debate, but often the scattered and choppy film meanders through multiple messages whilst driving the backroads of the country. We get clips of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show and getting his famous locks sheared in the Army, and the 1968 comeback special; however, there is little mention of Priscilla, Lisa Marie or Graceland.
Judging Elvis for money grab without seeming to take into account his young age (he was 21 when he first appeared on Sullivan, and 23 at his Army induction) and his extreme poverty of youth, much less the power of his domineering agent, seems to be harsh judgement in an era that had never seen such media giants as the Kardashians or Justin Bieber. When Jarecki’s road chief admits, “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing” (when Jarecki asks him what he thinks he’s doing with the movie), it’s the first time we can actually relate to what someone has said. Despite all of that, you’ll likely be glued to the screen for the full run time – either enjoying the songs, watching the clips, or trying to see if Jarecki’s puzzle pieces even fit together.
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