Does Elvis Presley symbolize the worst of America?
Eugene Jarecki talks us through his compelling road-trip documentary ‘The King,’ which uses the rise and fall of Presley as a metaphor for the American Dream
Elvis Presley has always been a complex figure that epitomized the American dream.
The pop culture Phenom irreversibly changed the world when he exploded onto the scene with his beauty, swagger and talent, before he then fulfilled his duties in the army, headed out to Hollywood to become a movie-star, made a heralded musical comeback, before dying of a heart attack aged just 42.
But “The King,” Eugene Jarecki’s expansive road-trip documentary, which stops at various landmarks across the country, each of which defined Elvis, all against the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election, proves that Presley’s parallels to America run much deeper than that.
I recently had the chance to speak to Jarecki, and he had a lot to say on Elvis and the American dream, all of which he did without mentioning the current President’s name, and it got preposterously and gloriously deep.
What was your ambition with The King? What did you want to explore?
Above all I wanted to take a very long and impassioned look at the American Dream. The better way to look at it, people have asked me, ‘What brought you to want to look at Elvis Presley together with the American dream?’ To me they were inextricable at the start. I can’t imagine a single person more identifiable in the world to the American dream than Elvis Presley. So then the question just became, ‘What is the American dream?’ And as we stand now at a time when what American means is so in question. What this country stands for. Where we are compared to where we came from. There are people that will say, ‘My God, everything that has happened in this era is such a departure from all the great and good that America has done before.' And other people will say, ‘What great and good are you talking about? This is the same country that commited genocide against Native Americans. This is the same country that enslaved African Americans and then stole in a continuing way from African Americans. This is the same country where women couldn’t vote. It has always been this way.’ So there’s a debate to be had about whether what we are seeing is the real America or a departure from the real America. Or something in between. And it was that, what is the meaning of the American dream that I wanted to understand more.
So, let's go back to the beginning, what was your view of and relationship with Elvis going into the film? And did that change as you were making it?
Growing up I had a profound love of Elvis. As is somewhat common in America. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and Elvis represents a time that was full of candy color chrome dream machine cars and cool clothes and music that was then totally iconic on the radio. On the surface that felt like a sunnier time. Where in the post-War boom of America there was a New Deal society that was onwards and upwards. But I also wasn’t stupid. From a very early age I also knew that America’s veneer in the 1950s was thin. Behind which was a terribly fraught society, with tremendous complications in its soul, Jim Crow, other kinds of rabid conservative oppression in the country, a rabid anti-communism that had put a freeze on the freedom of expression. You see this explode in the Civil Rights movement, when matters of race and matters of freedom and identity come to the fore. People take to the streets in necessary cathartic fiery ways. I knew that the 50s had been that, too. But there’s no questions that there’s this romance. Always. We all have this nostalgia for times when our parents were falling in love. For a time when great world events that we weren’t there to witness happened, and they add poetry to our lives. I was an Elvis fan in high school. And then comes Public Enemy and Fight The Power. And there’s no way to be a sensitive thinking person and hear that idea presented by Chuck D and not take it in and try to reconcile, ‘Well, I am a sensitive person that cares about race and justice, but what is Chuck D getting at here? And what is there more for me to learn?’ I suppose I entered the film not knowing what that more to the story would be, and of course the process of making the film was a process of learning about the much fuller picture, not only of who Elvis was but of how Elvis fits into our evolving national zeitgeist. That’s what I have come away with is this massively deep feeling of how to think about Elvis. And I hope the public can do the same. Because if you can rethink Elvis, and this isn’t about being critical about Elvis. This is about understanding Elvis as a full human being. And understanding Elvis as an icon. And taking genuine honest stock of those. Just as Me Too and Time’s Up are taking honest stock of America’s need to look in herself at contradictions in what we say we against what we do. The same is here, too. I think we are in a general period of rethink and I think rethinking our icons and understanding them more richly more fully and more compassionately leads to greater understanding and therefore public progress.
As a Brit who has lived here for six years I have always been interested by America’s pursuit to try and define and prove its greatness. The examination of that feels even more timely, too.
It betrays an insecurity. If you think about our national anthem, and the way in which in envisions the flag as a symbol of revolutionary courage, ‘After all the fighting and smoke clearing our flag is still there.’ I think it is even set to a melody of what was a British anthem. We come upon the World’s stage with an understandable pride of essentially overthrowing an Empire. It is an unbelievable thing that happened. OK, normal. Then comes the passage of time. And with the passage of time that show goes into reruns and syndication. And we start thinning and thinning and cheapening the meaning of that original symbolism. Until now, and when you drive down a small street in America, anywhere you look you will see an American flag. If you ever saw the flag in Britain flown as perpetually and commonly as it is in America you would think it was national Britain day. You would think it was your July 4. But that’s everyday here. And what it betrays is, we know the show has gone into reruns, we know the plots are getting thinner, and so we have put more money in the ad budget to put lipstick on that pig. Me think it doth protest too much. There’s something about this society that is working overdrive to advertise itself to everybody including itself. And Elvis is part of that advertisement. For example, there was a question over the years about the postage stamp that was to be released by the postal service of Elvis. And of course it was the young, beautiful, debonair, heart-throb Elvis against the 70s Vegas, white-sequined Elvis. I could say the fat Elvis. But they actually thinned him for the stamp, betraying exactly where their head was. And who did the public go for? The Vegas Elvis or the classic Elvis? Of course they went for the young Elvis. And why did they do that? Because in the face of an increasing insecurity about the meaning of America and the meaning of the American dream it is natural that people are clinging nostalgically to what they believe to be a former glory. That’s totally understandable and a natural reflex. But it is not a healthy reflex, any more than somebody you know that needs to move on in their lives and when you have a coffee with them all that they keep talking about is that person that they need to get over. It is like, ‘Get over it America. That was then. You have issues that you need to solve. They’ve never gone away and they won’t go away by more flag-waving.' They have to go away by really living up to the revolutionary spirit towards the human dignity that the flag represented in that original song. By the way the national anthem has racist lyrics against black people, its flawed in the way that every other thing is flawed. And America isn’t to be condemned for its flaws. She just needs to take them on alongside her gifts. And in that full picture continue the work that America represented in the ongoing quest for democracy.
What are your feelings on the current state of America then under Donald Trump?
OK, well for the purposes of our conversation, let’s put the person you have just mentioned over the in the corner and call him, He Who Shall Remain Nameless. Because I don’t think there is any value in my helping to promote a person who by their very nature is a publicist. So that person is in the publicist business, and they do a fine job of that. And they have millions of people working for them. I don’t want to even dignify that with my time. Part of that is that I would have made this film, and we would be having this conversation, with or without He Who Shall Remain Nameless, because any country that could have gotten to the point to being close to being run by such a person is clearly a broken and very unhealthy country. No healthy country would have opted for a realty television star, spoiled rich kid, someone who has never served the public interest in their life, and makes no apology for that. Only a system at the edge of its desperation would have come close to electing a person like that. We already have to talk about such a system that would do that, even before that person comes in and simply makes that discussion even more hysterical. So the difficulty of the American discourse, which preceded this person, that difficulty happens because for decades American people have directly felt forgotten and forsaken by those who should represent them. And they have because capitalism invaded democracy and bought out the representative. And that has no end in sight until there is a real revolutionary change of the way the system works. So to answer that conversation and to encourage Americans to look inwards and find the strength to demand the kind of democracy they want to see is the only thing I can imagine them doing, because naturally the landscape right now has become so hysterical. And it is so much about, this camp vs that camp, that a movie like mine that is neither a Democract movie nor a Republican movie but simply a human movie about the long term vision of human dignity and society, of systems of governance that represent the will of the people. That’s everything that people should be on the same page with. But it is hard to get them there when they are too busy watching MSNBC vs Fox and getting themselves all lathered up in one camp mentality or another. They are roads to nowhere. Except to the bottom line of the enterprises and of the politicians that those enterprises serve.
When did you shoot "The King"?
We started production and development of the film long before the election. So there was no He Who Shall Remain Nameless, who was just an annoyance to New Yorkers, ruining the skyline, and defaulting on debt. No-one thought the country was so far gone that this could happen. So when we started making the film, I was making a film about America and Elvis and the metaphors between them. In 2014 there was still plenty between them to document the rise and fall. 2015, we prepare for the film, end up driving across the country, coincidentally at the same time the country is being torn apart by the election of 2016. As we are driving over the radio in the Rolls Royce we are starting to hear tidbits about this person running for President. It still didn’t feel like something that should be taken seriously. You hear what Alec Baldwin says in the movie, he says, ‘Trump is not going to win.’ But by the time we finished the movie the election was over and the result is known to us. I remember the night the election happened many people called me, as many people called one another to share their feelings, and people told me enormous regret, lament and fear about what had happened, but they also said before hanging up, ‘But boy is this great for your movie.’ Like I was some ambulance chasing lawyer that benefits when there is a crash on the highway. I understood that something had happened that was going to change the fate and destiny of the film.
That’s the thing, though, sometimes I think the only positive to this current situation is that if Trump hadn’t won then the blatant issues and racism that his victory has brought to the fore would have been overlooked again. I hope that this current situation will be the one massive step back to several ultimately going forward, but then I think I am thinking too highly of people.
There is that. There is that. But it is funny. We could be making a similar film about the United Kingdom that would dovetail carefully and mindfully with the situation of Brexit in England. And would try to understand the perversity that produced such a ludicrous and anti-enlightenment outcome in the UK. There is a film to be made about that very thing, and the abandonment of neo-liberalism, that pushed the British people to such desperation that they reached out to any quick fix and hatred and xenophobia that was offered, nothing better was offered to them, and they took it. All human beings can hate as much as love, and be inclined towards the negative rather than the positive. It has always been easier to destroy than to create. Try to build a house, it can take years. To destroy one it takes hours. It is a symbol for the human experience. But there is something special in the American story, which just has to do with one thing. The British already know that they have had a long and checkered history and that there’s something remarkable about the United Kingdom. And there has also been something imperial and impressive and exploitative about the United Kingdom. I remember when Danny Boyle oversaw the opening ceremony to the Olympics, it was sort of all on display. There was a self-awareness that I loved about British people, on all sides of the equation. Where they know that they are long-suffering, because they are sat on this rainy set of islands in the middle of the Atlantic and should never have run the world. But they did. But that was then and they have now moved into a handsome position of playing second. Not shooting for the moon in the way that they did and it is pretty comfortable. There was this story about British exploring, and British pioneering spirit that has its own mythology and own set of truths. The same is true here. We have a mythology that is also partly true. This is a land where people have found opportunity. It does have gigantic skies, it is beautiful, the automobiles were amazing, the American people can be overwhelmingly kind and lovely. That’s all true. But it is also true that all of that happened on blood soaked native land. It all happened on the backs of black slavery. And both were true at the same time. Jefferson is penning some of the most beautiful texts about freedom while raping slaves.
It is interesting to me that if Bernie Sanders had won you could have still made this film and it would have had a more positive tinge.
It’s one of those things when they say, ‘If that bullet had been one more inch to the left.’ What happens if Bernie Sanders won we can’t know. One would imagine that Bernie Sanders, whose message was counter to the standard operating procedure of Washington, would have had a very hard time. Especially if you look at the hard time that Obama had. Who was a consummate negotiator. Consummate, agile deal-maker and strategist. Bernie Sanders is a representative of an ideology about human dignity. Washington is a pool of sharks. I would have loved to have seen the moment when the country, sensing its own sense of despair, reached out for health food instead of junk food. But they reached out for junk food. They didn’t do the health food thing, but imagine giving health food to a person who is already in a crack methamphetamine frenzy. They are gonna gobble through that and then look for the junk food to wash it down with. It’s not going to get through their system necessarily. So the growing pains of getting the country to think through this. Now if Bernie Sanders were President right now and the movie came out, there’s a good chance that people would say, ‘Oh, we don’t have to watch that. This movie is outdated. Because clearly we got off the toilet. We put down the drugs, and we went out to get quinoa.’ That being Bernie Sanders. But instead we have a situation with He Who Shall Remain Nameless where we are thinking, ‘What the f*** just happened? Did we just die on the toilet?’ Or are the amazing signs of democracy that we are seeing right now; Emma Gonzalez and the Parklands students, the teacher walk outs in several states, Me Too, Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter, there are so many movements arising in this age of this person. And they are doing so because they find him so toxic, so predatory, so rapacious that they can no longer keep silent. Welcome to a democracy in the making. So, for me, I actually in a macabre way welcome this moment. Not because I want to see concentration camps set up for juveniles. As we are seeing under this administration. But because when you see that’s how they really see the human condition. That’s how they really are. Then you understand the consequences of not being engaged as a democratic citizen in shaping your society. Then you might have something really on your hands that Bernie Sanders, or a Bernie Sanders, would just be the hood ornament on that massive engine of people. So, it is a very interesting time right now. And I think the Bernie vs so-and-so decision that we faced, that was two different ways that America tried to lash out and get out of the situation it was in. And, you know, this person that was elected is like a rebound guy. Abused people, they get abused for long enough that they say at some point, ‘You know what, I have been down so long that the next person who walks through that door and says anything other than this status quo and I will go with them.’ So in walks this charlatan and they have been hoodwinked to a degree. But that degree is slipping. And it is kind of wonderful to watch this collapse, if I am honest. The cost along the way, to families, to poor people, to victims is obscene. But if we can quickly see in it the face of evil, we might move and make progress that would make those damages, never warranted, but those people will not have suffered in vain because they would have demonstrated what fascism looks like in the modern era.
Just to bring it back to Elvis, there was a quote from Lester Bangs, who just after the death of Elvis wrote a piece for the Village Voice called, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” One of the final lines of which is, “I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”
[Laughs] I haven’t seen that. Here’s the funny thing. I laughed when you said, “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” I laughed and I realized that we have to be very careful. Because when we laugh at something like that, it’s like someone just showing off their white privilege. When I laugh at a thing like that I am like recognizing, ‘Yeah that’s right.’ And no it is not f***ing right. Black America was truly not in agreement that Elvis was the greatest thing since slice bread. So it is only we in the bubble, we big white men that think that we all agreed. It is worth saying that it is not that what you read to me was wrong at all, I understand that there was a time where Elvis was the last thing that red and blue white people agreed on. We can accept that. But we have got to spread that out wider and admit that Elvis represented a big white regime, which is finally getting its long overdue reexamination thanks to the most brazen, appalling big white man of all. I am sure we have both had those nights where we have been talking to a mate all night long and we have figured out the solution to the whole problems of the world. It is humanist, we are concerned about the underdog, and the man has his boot on the back of civilization. But there is a certain moment where a third party enters the situation, let’s say a woman. And then suddenly you have that slightly eerie sense that we may think we are solving the problems of the world, but why is it two white guys sitting here? And can we really have solved the problems of the world in a conversation that isn’t more democratized? I think that’s what goes on in that quote. Yes it is true that within the bubble that we lived in we were self deluded enough to think we all agreed on that Elvis. But what we have been doing since then is thinking, ‘What does he represent more broadly? Because what does America represent more broadly?’ One of the most beautiful things that has happened screening the film, and I hope it happens in America and in other countries, is that the film stands for neo-liberalism and its discontents, its impossibility, its non-viability for an ongoing world far beyond just the American example.
I could speak to you all day, mate. Thanks so much for the film, too, it was so eye-opening.
I really appreciate that. Because you should see the hate mail that I have been getting for this film online. People see the trailer and they are rabidly, you think I would have attacked their mom. I realize what I have done. Because they have only seen the trailer. I think if people see the movie they get a different experience and hopefully they’ll love it. But it is a different experience with the trailer. Because the moment Chuck D comes on screen I lose them. Because they think, ‘I know where this is going.’ What does that mean? That means they assume their sweet, white picket fence nostalgia. Which really means that I am grabbing their cup of Kool Aid and taking it away from them. And they don’t want that.
"The King" is playing in New York this weekend, while Eugene Jarecki will be answering questions after the below screenings.
FRIDAY, JUNE 22
7:00 PM The Landmark at 57 West
657 West 57th Street, NYC 10019
7:45 PM IFC Center
323 6th Ave, New York, NY 10014
SATURDAY, JUNE 23
11:00 AM The Landmark
657 West 57th Street, NYC 10019
7:00 PM The Landmark
657 West 57th Street, NYC 10019
7:45 PM IFC Center
323 6th Ave, New York, NY 10014
SUNDAY, JUNE 24TH
2:00 PM The Landmark
657 West 57th Street, NYC 10019
5:10 PM IFC Center
323 6th Ave, New York, NY 10014