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“The King” is a compelling documentary that asks big questions

Over the weekend, a new film came out that, below the radar, manages to be one of the year’s more interesting titles. It’s a little documentary from filmmaker Eugene Jarecki called The King. Having made the film festival circuit over the past year or so, it’s a look at Elvis Presley, but also how his rise and fall is reflected in America. The movie opened on Friday, with a bit of acclaim attached to it. On a personal note, I moderated Q and A events in New York City over the weekend with Jarecki, which had the doc on my mind. As such, it’s one I want to discuss today.

The documentary is a look at Elvis Presley, but also the country that made and destroyed him as well. IMDb lists the synopsis as such: “Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, a musical road trip across America in his 1963 Rolls Royce explores how a country boy lost his authenticity and became a king while his country lost her democracy and became an empire.” As the filmmaker treks cross country, the life of Elvis is interspersed with the country rising and falling. Of course, Donald Trump is looming shadow over the present day (Jarecki in person over the weekend has a very unique tactic in dealing with him, where he doesn’t address the man by name, not wanting to promote a failing brand), though this is very much about things other than that individual. Jarecki co-writes with Christopher St. John and directs, with the talent involved sitting down for interviews including Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Chuck D, Lana Del Rey, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, M. Ward, and many more. It’s fascinating to watch, as well as being deeply unique for a non fiction work.

This flick manages to be a look at Elvis that fans can embrace, but if Presley isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty to hang on to. The idea that his rise and fall is a reflection of the country, and vise versa, is a compelling one. Hawke poignantly speaks about how Elvis always chose money, and that corrupted him. In so many ways, isn’t that current society too? Jarecki asks questions, but never offers up easy answers. That gives the doc a messier feel than most issue type films, that’s also part of its charm. The movie is a rebel, through and through.

Jarecki has long been interested in issues facing America. The Military Industrial Complex got his treatment in Why We Fight, while prison reform was tackled in The House I Live In. Here, he’s looking at the country on the whole, with that as the macro, while Elvis himself is the micro. Once called The Promise, which was a bit on the nose, The King works as either a look at Elvis or a look at the country individually. When intertwined, that becomes what makes this doc special. No one else has quite attempted to do what Jarecki is doing here, and it works.

Depending on how the year goes, The King could wind up being an Oscar contender for Best Documentary Feature. Frankly, a lot of its chances ride on how much of the field is set early. If RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? are considered current frontrunners, it might be harder to stand out in the pack. That remains to be seen. Whether or not it contends for Academy Award love, The King is a worthwhile doc that deserves to be sought out. Jarecki has crafted another winner, while showcasing some huge ambitions. Give it a shot and you’ll see what I mean…

Be sure to check out The King, now playing!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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