Cast: Elvis Presley, Alec Baldwin, and Rosanne Cash
Director: Eugene Jarecki
107 minutes (15) 2017
Dogwoof DVD Region 2
Review by Andrew Darlington
Anyone can be Elvis. A white jumpsuit with flares and a rhinestone cape. Slur Can’t Help Falling In Love over the karaoke backing-track wearing a big black fake quiff, a curl of the lip, and an ‘Uh-Huh, thanyew very much.’ We can all be Elvis. Except – of course, that we can’t. Elvis was simultaneously a charismatic human being and ‘a mysterious unknowable person,’ as well as being one of the most instantly identifiable icons of our time.
Elvis Presley straddles the tumultuous post-war decades of traumatic change in a way that continues well beyond his 1977 death. Writers and academics Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick rationalise and contextualise it all in ways that Elvis himself never could. And here he’s made over into a metaphor for America itself. An embodiment of the American story. ‘Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?’ asks Jack Kerouac. Paul Simon, a far more intellectual and articulate artist than Elvis ever was, ‘walked off to look for America,’ by way of Graceland.
Film-maker Eugene Jarecki uses Elvis as lodestone for a personal quest to hunt out the lost destiny of America on the eve of the Trump disaster. He uses Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce for the ride, with its Tennessee plate 2C-9279, relaxing into the back-seat upholstery, musing in a kind of awe that ‘the King sat in this car.’ ‘I thought he only drove American cars?’ queries Emmylou Harris, obviously thinking of the Cadillacs that Elvis was in the habit of giving away to strangers. John Hiatt sings the Neil Young line about ‘the King is gone but he’s not forgotten,’ and then gets emotional in the back seat of the Rolls.
The road-trip starts at the shotgun Tupelo shack where Elvis Aaron was born, and where he still shakes the money-maker. ‘Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, that’s all that Tupelo has thrived on. That’s the only thing keeping it alive’ complains one disgruntled resident. And downtown Tupelo where the dirt-po’ white-trash Presley family lived on the racial divide of the black neighbourhood. A time of the America Dream. And an American Nightmare of segregation and Ku Klux Klan lynchings. ‘The American Dream was always someone’s fantasy, and someone else’s drunken nightmare.’ The film splices anecdote, guitars, opinion, rhetoric, analysis and movement. American music, and by extension, global 20th century music, charts the interaction of black and white strands, from the very first shellac record by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, through Bix Beiderbecke, Scott Joplin’s Ragtime, Robert Johnson at the Blues crossroad, into Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. A fusion… or cultural appropriation, depending on your viewpoint, in the great American democratic experiment founded on the genocide of its native peoples and built by slavery.
Then across the Memphis City Limits where all those southern traditions come together, B.B. King, Martin Luther King, plus the King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But also Stax, ‘Soulsville USA’ and Aretha. Jarecki follows young Elvis from the ‘Lauderdale Courts’ social housing project – which is now on the tourist trail, to the Assembly Of God Church where he heard Gospel and the gospel, to Hume High School. Then to Sun Studios where Elvis – the skinny, broke, Momma’s boy, by turns confused and humble, cut That’s Alright Mama. The echo is still there. I could feel it as I paced that same studio floor. Sam Phillips story has been multiply told. Yes, Elvis took from Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, and Big Mama Thornton’s sophisticated bitching on the original Hound Dog, the forbidden music he hunted out on Beale Street and black radio stations. But he equally took from Bill Monroe’s bluegrass country Blue Moon Of Kentucky.
He was the perfect fusion of both. Philips’ incarnation of the white man with a black soul, totally intuitive, as natural as breathing. Unconsciously, unintentionally, unaware, he was spirit of the times, the personification of a revolution sweeping the nation… and then the world. On the chaos theory principle, he was the ripple that became the tsunami. What did he want? ‘if you’re not happy, what have you got?’ he rhetorically parries an early interviewer. It’s doubtful if he ever achieved that ambition. Instead, Colonel Tom Parker, the Ultimate Carny Barker, pulled ‘the temptation of Christ by the Devil’ scam, the Faustian Pact that monetised and destroyed him. With Elvis as ‘King Kong’ – captured, tamed and exhibited.
King Kong (1933) is accused of being a racist movie. And Elvis meant shit to Chuck D. Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Muhammad Ali put their celebrity on the line for social issues. Elvis never did. Except by example. When he jokily TV-announces Long Tall Sally as ‘by my friend Little Richard. I’ve never met him, but he’s my friend,’ he was normalising respect, that Black Lives Matter. He denied that In The Ghetto was about a black victim of the system, by recalling the poverty of his own beginnings. Hunger has no colour. ‘America has ruled the world with the moving image’ observes a perceptive Mike Myers. With clips of protest, Vietnam, race riots, and news talking-heads illustrating the tale alongside bites from the semi-autobiographical Loving You (1957), the brooding King Creole (1958) and then the family-fun G.I. Blues (1960). Elvis went into the army as James Dean – it says, and came back as John Wayne.
From New York the Rolls drives to Detroit, motor-city where Motown records aimed not to be an R&B label, but the ‘Sound Of Young America’. And where, post-collapse, Eminem takes cultural appropriation into Rap. No-one draws parallels between 8 Mile (2002) and Jailhouse Rock (1957), but they’re there. Then down Route 66 with the Handsome Family, to Hollywood. From the 1968 ‘TV Comeback Special’, to Las Vegas – the ‘radioactive mutation of capitalism’ according to Myers. Through the Greed Is Good years. Elvis with Nixon. Auctioning the triple-Elvis Flaming Star (1960) Warhol print. Elvis commodified, merchandised, bought and sold, over and over. In another unscripted metaphor, even the Rolls breaks down. ‘If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we’re about to OD.’
‘Let’s make America great again. America is great when America does great things,’ the movie voice-overs. Trump’s election is a conundrum. Evidence of a loss of national confidence. From the vibrant violent optimistic opening-up of the Elvis years – the 1950s and 1960s, to a retreat into some mythical past. What does that mean for the state of the nation now? At the time of the record’s release, I resented Elvis remaking Mickey Newbury’s wistfully nostalgic American Trilogy into a jingoistic epic of bombast. Yet strangely it comes close to being a statement of his own belief, and when he sings the line ‘hush little baby, don’t you cry, you know your daddy’s bound to die, all my trials, Lord, will soon be over’ it still have the power to break hearts. If Elvis naively believed in the American rags-to-riches Dream, it’s because his trajectory is its embodiment. Post 9/11 and post-Obama, maybe Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs now perform that function? But no-one can be Elvis, no-one other than Elvis Aaron Presley can ever be that.