DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "The King" is a new movie tracking the ups and downs of the past century of American life through the turbulent rise and fall of Elvis Presley. It's directed by documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Elvis Presley is one of the most endlessly mythologized figures in American history, but Eugene Jarecki's documentary "The King" reminds us that his legacy remains an inexhaustible subject. In this feverishly analytical and wide-ranging musical essay, Jarecki fuses Presley's turbulent life story to the very soul of America itself. He sees Elvis in his myriad contradictions as a symbol of the nation in all its grander and ambition but also its blindness, corruption and betrayal of its own promise. You might well poke holes in parts of his thesis afterward, but as an overarching metaphor, it's enormously stimulating.
At the movie's best, the rhetorical force of Jarecki's polemic dovetails with the emotional momentum of Elvis's music. "The King" is a rise-and-fall biographical portrait, a treasure trove of archival footage and a kind of concert film on wheels. Jarecki takes Elvis's 1963 Rolls-Royce out for a spin, retracing his life journey. He starts at his birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., then moves on to Memphis, where his musical career took off in 1954. The TV studios of New York, the movie sets of Hollywood and the casinos of Las Vegas will soon follow, each destination sadder than the last.
But this cross-country tour manages to be a blast as well as a bummer. Jarecki celebrities and self-styled Elvis experts like Ethan Hawke and Alec Baldwin in the passenger seat. And he also brings in musicians like EmiSunshine and The Rain and the Stax Musical Academy singers to hold a few thrilling jam sessions in the back seat. Not everyone interviewed for the film is so willing to go along for the ride. The news commentator Van Jones makes the case that Presley appropriated black music.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE KING")
VAN JONES: My father was born in Memphis in 1944, and there's probably nobody he hated more than Elvis Presley. As a black kid seeing a white man take black music and become famous and not do anything for black people was a horrible offense. I think it's very hard to express sometimes the frustration that black people feel having given so much to the culture and that great value, which really helps to define America, ultimately benefiting others.
CHANG: Director Jarecki also extensively interviewed the rapper Chuck D, who memorably dissed Elvis in the 1989 Public Enemy song "Fight The Power."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE KING")
CHUCK D: My conversation never was just this white dude stole black music. I think Sam Phillips was a business guy who tried to sell those records with black folks, could not get them across, found a guy, you know, that's been able to sell a black sound with a white face. He knew what to sell to America.
EUGENE JARECKI: Is that, in and of itself, a problem?
CHUCK D: No, I don't think so. I think culture is culture. Culture is to be shared. You know, you see a black person playing classical piano, you can't say, you know, because he doesn't have, you know, quote, unquote, "German roots," you know, that he can't play that classical piano good as anybody else. If a person is able to do the twisted stanky (ph) leg and it happens to be Justin Timberlake, I think it's cool.
CHANG: The TV writer and journalist David Simon says that all culture is essentially appropriation. He notes that if Elvis borrowed from pioneering black artists like Arthur Crudup and Lowell Fulson, he was equally influenced by white musicians such as Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. As the documentary shows us, Elvis brought it all together, synthesizing gospel blues and country with a swinging-hips exuberance that the world had never before witnessed.
"The King" takes us back to a time when it was all but impossible to turn on a radio or TV set and not see or hear Elvis Presley. And it reminds us of the near religious fervor with which his audiences embraced him. But while the movie never loses sight of Elvis the timeless American artist, it also doesn't shy away from Elvis the sellout, the star possessed of more talent than vision or principle.
As the film recaps his ill-advised movie career, his descent into pill addiction and his dismal final years as a Vegas lounge lizard, we see a man utterly trapped by his own celebrity. The Elvis-as-America metaphor emerges gradually but with quickly gathering force. Jarecki frames Presley as a man who represented a great deal to many people but who ultimately stood for too little.
A few interview subjects ding Elvis for refusing to take a stand on the political issues of the day the way Jane Fonda did on Vietnam and Muhammad Ali did on the civil rights movement. Much of "The King" was shot during the 2016 presidential election, and Jarecki spends some time interviewing white working class Elvis fans who connect with the singer's rags-to-riches narrative. These same fans also connect with the promises of Donald Trump.
With Trump's presidency, Jarecki argues, the country is now in its bloated, fat Elvis phase - complacent, wasting away from addiction and apathy, in danger of losing sight of the values it stands for. It's a grim view but not a final one. After all, America hasn't left the building - yet.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, the ongoing crisis with contaminated water and lead poisoning in Flint, Mich. Terry Gross talks with pediatrician and public health advocate Mona Hanna-Attisha about the research that led her to sound the alarm back in 2015. Nearly three years later, she still doesn't drink tap water there. She's now the director of an initiative to deal with the crisis. Hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MYSTERY TRAIN")
ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Train I ride, 16 coaches long. Train I ride, 16 coaches long. Well, that long black train got my baby and gone.
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.