There are times in Eugene Jarecki’s The King when it’s a bit unclear where the film is heading.
A metaphorical bio-doc on Elvis Presley, it presents the musician’s life in tandem with the filmmaker driving around the country in his subject’s 1963 Rolls Royce, visiting locations key to Elvis’ journey and drawing parallels between Elvis’ story and that of subsequent U.S. history with help from celebrity passengers along the way.
While that mission is established from the get-go, the sporadic lack of certainty is compounded by the director discussing the premise with his collaborators and crew, and receiving feedback that he should pick a more thematically appropriate automobile or instill greater confidence in those around him by having a less meandering approach.
In turn, The King becomes a dual quest narrative in addition to twin rise-and-fall sagas, intelligently weaving in such evergreen issues as cultural appropriation, economic hardship and society’s obsession with fame.
Commentary on the latter and where it’s led the country is especially impactful in separate scenes with a cynical Alec Baldwin and a glum Ashton Kutcher navigating their adoring fans and responding with varying degrees of politeness, while Nashville musician John Hiatt’s emotional response to sitting in the car’s backseat poetically illustrates the enduring ache of Elvis’ tragic arc.
These reflections and an insightful Mike Myers providing refreshing common sense via his outsider Canadian perspective mesh well with in-car musical performances, and though Hiatt’s and others’ (M. Ward; Emi Sunshine) are clearly live, certain ones (namely rapper Immortal Technique) appear jarringly pre-recorded.
As The King ambles on to Elvis’ final days, its scope becomes increasingly impressive and packs a cumulative wallop that didn’t seem possible in its early stages. Like many of the best journeys, there’s a very good chance that in order for Jarecki to reach his intended destination, he first needed to get a little lost.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories)