Do you shape the journey or does the journey shape you?
That’s a question creative people often confront. I don’t know if the makers of the 2017 documentary The King had a theme to chase or whether the chase served up a theme. My hunch is it was more the latter. Whatever the reason, this is an outstanding documentary on a familiar subject – Elvis Presley.
There was no doubt in my mind as regards what the topic maybe, when I saw the film and its title show up on Netflix. Elvis is so strongly linked to that reference: the king; he is the king of rock `n’ roll. Most documentary films about rock stars end up a carefully struck balance between puff piece and their struggles, typically the product of complex life or acquired habits. What I didn’t anticipate in The King was the manner in which the documentary explored the origins of Elvis’s music, the social circumstances that led to him and not others being the king of that genre, the many ways in which his popularity was leveraged leaving him a brand and eventually a commodity and how all this probably reflected at a larger level, a nation’s aspirations hijacked by money and power and rendered hypocritical.
That’s a lot to squeeze into a documentary film of finite dimension. But The King pulls it off magnificently with its idiom of traveling through Elvis country in the king’s own Rolls Royce and chats with singers and actors recorded as they ride in the car. None of those participating in the documentary – they range from Ethan Hawke to Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers, Chuck D and Emmylou Harris – hold back on what they think of Elvis. This makes the film natural and engaging. The musical genres Elvis promoted were not new; some of his songs were sung by others earlier and sung pretty well too. Even the car comes in for scrutiny – if Elvis was as representative of the American Dream as he was marketed to be, why did he keep a Rolls Royce? It puts the spotlight on what ingredients constituted the Elvis phenomenon. How did genres and lines that were already existing become a hit when sung by him? And in proportion to how things worked for him, you realize why it didn’t work for others. Little by little, the film, as it unravels the imagery around Elvis, unravels alongside the progressive decline of the original American Dream – life, liberty and happiness. The values the country once evoked appear lost through emphasis of money, companies and empire building, not to mention the steady propagation alongside of misleading imagery by a powerful entertainment industry. The picture of America became that latter synthetic facade. A yawning gap opened up between it and reality. The King is as much about Elvis as it is it about what happened to America.
A few things made this documentary interesting to watch. First, as viewer, you live in the present with questions about America born from the social inequality and turbulence you saw happening there over the past few years. Second, as you deconstruct the Elvis-image you see how much the above mentioned situation has remained simmering and unchanged through all those years. Third, this film is not only absorbing for its subject but also for how it was made. It has an organic, evolving-on-the-go feel, which – when you think about it – is possible only if the creative mind is complemented by courage. Finally, work of this sort makes you respect America. Such films – and others, more hard hitting and on more sensitive topics – wouldn’t be made if room for critical perspective shrank as it is has in some other democracies currently diluting freedom of expression.
This is a documentary worth watching.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)