Peabody Award winning filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, The House I Live In) starts things off wonderfully. He takes a 1963 Rolls Royce Phantom that Elvis Presley owned, and tours the U.S., and many of Presley’s old stompin’ grounds. There’s a lot of talk about the King. He also wants to make a commentary on America, which could’ve worked, but he ends up straining to make certain connections on race, wealth, drugs, poverty, and politics. It made me wish he would’ve stuck to Elvis and chilled on the editorializing on modern America. Especially since, mixing archival footage and things we’ve all seen before (the ‘68 comeback special, clips from cheesy movies, etc.), would work well with people we love like John Hiatt getting into the backseat of the car, and sobbing as he talks about Presley.
David Simon (The Wire) gave the filmmaker crap for not using a Cadillac, an American car and a vehicle Elvis is more known for. Well, I’ll give Jarecki crap for making a disjointed mess of a movie, albeit an entertaining one.
We see the Rolls roll up to Tupelo, Mississippi, where Presley grew up. There’s a lot of poverty, and it seems Elvis might still be the biggest business this small town has going. We get to hear from some of the residents there, too. There’s a trip to Memphis and New York City (nothing better than watching a smug Alec Baldwin get into the back of the car and yell out the window to fans, to see who hates Trump, before declaring “There’s no way Trump is going to win this election.”). In each of those towns, we’re given a lot of information about Presley’s life, and even the facts we knew, you don’t mind hearing again.
The car breaks down at one point, which made me think…if Jarecki is so into the metaphor of Elvis’ decline and the decline of America…I think the fact that the car breaks down halfway into the movie, is symbolic of what his movie also does.
The car makes it to Detroit, because…well, maybe Michael Moore’s influence took over Jarecki, and he wanted to point some things out about the auto industry.
Of course there’s some Route 66 footage, Hollywood, and Las Vegas…where the King ended up getting fat and bloated. Just as this movie ended up doing as it came to its conclusion, with two hours of preachiness.
I will give the documentary credit for showing both sides. When Chuck D (Public Enemy) gets angry talking about Elvis, and he (and Van Jones) and others talk about him stealing black music (although someone should explain to him that in the early days, Elvis covered songs by Dean Martin and Bill Monroe)…We get people like David Simon saying that all art is theft and music is a form of cultural appropriation. One of the rappers also gives credit to The Beastie Boys, a rap band consisting of white Jewish guys. It’s nice that some people understand how music works, and exposure to music often helps everyone. But that’s a debate for another time.
It was a bit disgusting to see how Jarecki deals with rumours about Presley, while showing footage of the KKK or war scenes, as if Presley were part of what was wrong with our country. Now, when he has people talk about how Elvis could’ve done more for the cause, regarding the race riots and bigotry, that’s a decent point. Although I’m sure you could make the same argument for Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino…all of whom got rich playing rock ‘n roll in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I never heard of them marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was interesting to hear various people sit in the backseat of the Rolls and talk. James Carville and Ethan Hawke had a lot of interesting things to say. Ashton Kutcher, on fame (even as cars drive by with fans shouting his name), makes you wonder how he ever got famous. We also hear from Mike Myers and Linda Thompson, who was one of Elvis’ girlfriends. I preferred the musicians, who often brought their gear and broke into song. It was like a live version of Carpool Karaoke. Those would include rapper Immortal Technique, the Handsome Family, M. Ward, Emmylou Harris, and teenagers from the Stax Music Academy, who did a great version of Chain of Fools. There was also a child singer that did a lot of yodeling, which was fun.
Again, a lot of this stuff we already knew. Elvis left Sun Records, where we got gems like That’s All Right, Blue Moon of Kentucky, and Good Rockin’ Tonight to go to RCA and churn out hits. Colonel Tom Parker got him into Hollywood, making them both obscenely rich, but making crap movies and songs (okay, Viva Las Vegas is a cool tune, thanks to Doc Pomus)…all to have Elvis bloated in Vegas and being exploited. Although we do get his wonderful performance of Unchained Melody, which makes you tear up hearing that voice he had…and looking at the sweaty mess he had become.
I liked that they talked to regular folks, including Presley’s best friend from high school. But seeing Bernie Sanders at a rally, and some of the other things we had to sit through, makes you think this is the Harum Scarum of documentaries. I would’ve rather seen more Lana Del Rey and less Dan Rather. She could’ve done a whole record in the backseat of that car instead of just one Muddy Waters tune, and less preaching from Jarecki.
2 ½ stars out of 5.