Documentarian Eugene Jarecki Discusses Elvis ‘The King’ Presley, “Jewels In A Bucket,” And An Authentic America
Back in the seventies, Elvis Presley (The King) was one of the most potent cultural icons in pop culture. His signature moves both on and off stage earned him both praise and scorn. However, his cultural impact remains with us today and is the subject of a documentary film aptly titled ‘The King.’ Creative Screenwriting spoke to its writer, Eugene Jarecki about the relevance of Elvis’ journey today.
Emmy and Peabody award-winning director Eugene Jarecki is interested in American justice, poetry in film, journalism, and Elvis Presley. In his latest documentary, The King, Jarecki jumped behind the wheel of Elvis’ Rolls Royce to drive cross-country on a musical road trip in an effort to explore the loss of authenticity in America.
“We’re at a time where we’re looking very closely at what the American dream really means. Who is there that any of us can think of who more poetically represents the American dream than Elvis Presley?” As a musician, Elvis began from humble roots but soon had a meteor-like career and the film is meant to highlight these parallels with America. The director added, “I think Elvis is a person who got lost and he got lost at the height of his power. Isn’t that America, too?”
“I think Elvis is authentic and he was authentic in a way that blew apart pre-existing barriers. The first, of course, is that he sounded like a black person and no one before him had the courage to bring that to a white audience. For Elvis, it was second nature,” he concluded. The musician came from Mississippi, where his identification came from black and white struggles within a Bible belt territory.
Post War America & Elvis Presley
The post-war life of the 1950s had a superficial view of an orchestrated society behind a white-picket fence. This was what the music sounded like prior to the King. “Then, we have this crossover white kid—it’s a little like Eminem today,” mused Jarecki. “He was just a very authentic messenger of things that had previously been the province of the black-American experience. I think that caught people by storm. Then, he’s a very sexy person so I think he had that sex appeal.”
As a sex symbol, Elvis was a “screen idol before there were screen idols.” The combination of everything made Elvis this unstoppable force. White-picket fence America wasn’t ready for this, so the King was also presented as risky and somewhat dangerous for young listeners.
The King begins in Elvis’ car, which is a unique thread throughout the movie. Originally, Jarecki had the idea to make a movie about Elvis and America, but when they discovered they could take his car on a road trip, the movie started to shift and take shape in a new direction.
Creating Threads In A Documentary
In a way, the car became the central character of the film, as if they were showing America through Elvis’ eyes via the vehicle. Throughout the movie, various musicians played in the back of the car and actors either drive the vehicle or set in the King’s backseat.
However, the car also showed how things went wrong for Elvis. Jarecki said, “A Rolls Royce is not a Cadillac. It’s not a convertible Thunderbird. It’s not a romantic, American, big sky country car. It’s more the car that a guy living in Hollywood with too much power and too much money who finds himself lost in the backseat.”
The movie isn’t really a biopic. Instead, it’s a collection of interviews and thoughts about the King and his life. For the director, the film needed to include people who have drastically been influenced by the King as well as those who shaped his persona.
One example would be Peter Guralnick, who wrote the definitive biographies about Elvis. But, the talking heads also include Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Chuck D, Lana Del Rey, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher, Mike Myers, and countless others like Elvis’ best friend, Jerry Schilling.
Among these interviews, many are complimentary, but there’s also a blunt conversation with rapper Chuck D, who believed Elvis may have been racist. “Obviously race is a big issue these days and it should be. America and race are unfinished stories and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said the director. Chuck D said Elvis took black music but did nothing for civil rights.
In the movie, Elvis essentially avoided any public political views on anything. But, he did represent the black community to a white audience. The video doesn’t blame Elvis, but it does highlight both sides of the argument while touching on, “What is a celebrity supposed to do…and what obligation do people have? Are they supposed to speak up or be quiet?”
Shifting Themes As A Journalist
There are various themes throughout the film, such as cultural appropriation, poverty, racism, life in America, and even aspects of fame. According to the director, people are marvelous and they always surprise Jarecki when he makes a new film.
“In this country, we’ve had the Democratic party and the Republic party pound into our heads that people are blue or red. When, the fact is, people are purple. I know lots of people who have very blue ideas on certain things, very red on other things. I know people who are blue that live in red counties, red but live in blue counties. People get along and they live together better than we’re led to believe in the evening news.”
Jarecki is personally unhappy with today’s politics and believes that the two-party system has failed Americans and the American way of life. The media has made it look like there is no common sense in America, but after this filmed road trip, he discovered that people are still thinking, loving, and doing their best.
The problem is really with big business, according to the director. Jarecki made the film around the 2016 election so it’s interesting to see people voice their opinions before and after the election in the film. “We shot the film spanning 2016. We were able to watch the country be driven in two by that election,” he added.
A Country In A Mid-Life Crisis
The director thinks that America is still a young country entering a mid-life crisis. There is a lot of learning to be had and this is what he relates to Trump’s win for the 2016 election. “I don’t have a bad feeling about this at all. I think it’s work that we have to do but nobody told us that democracy wasn’t going to be work,” he added.
The goal to do so is not allowing people to be corrupt. “I feel like I’m doing something positive in a very negative time. When Donald Trump got elected, people called me and said, ‘I can’t believe what just happened.’ People called me crying on my shoulder, but the weirdest thing is that they all told me, ‘But this is great for your movie…’ As if I’m some sort of ambulance-chasing lawyer where the worse the world gets, the better it gets for my movie. All that that said was that the country had reached the breaking point that Elvis had reached.”
Jarecki determined, “Donald Trump is like the image of everything that destroyed Elvis—the wolf at the door that tore Elvis to pieces, got rid of his authenticity, and sold him out to the highest bidder,” he said. “Until there was nothing left to him but a broken person hooked on things trying to soothe his pain.”
The Collective Vision Of Film
As a documentary filmmaker, one of the challenges for Jarecki was finding the collective vision of the film. Since the dialogue clearly isn’t scripted, this means filtering countless hours of dialogue to shape up a cohesive conversation about Elvis and America.
For this particular film, the crew shot close to 2,000 hours and then pulled an hour and forty-seven minutes for the final cut. The director’s mother has described these enormous cuts as “jewels in a bucket,” which have to be organized and put in their proper place to shape the film. The filming is the craft and the editing is the art of the film. “There’s a lot of pressure to be fair and be mindful and do something that makes this world better.”
“I would like to think [The King] is a combination of all the things I’ve made before. All of my films have been chiefly concerned with America and the concerns that people face here—having the country live up to its promises,” added Jarecki.
“I’ve always pursued things that have hurt young men and women, American justice, and idealism. This film is no different. This film, which tries to understand romantically and poetically what the hell went on here is as much of a fight for justice and dignity and a better world tomorrow as anything I’ve made.”
Over the years, Eugene Jarecki has been described as a poet and journalist. “If you can root yourself in fact and also tell a beautiful story that makes somebody feel happy to be alive or ready to fight for the lives of others and dignity of others, then I think you’ve done something and harnessed the best of journalism with the best of poetry. If I could be anything in my life, it would be a combination of those two things…”
This article has been condensed. Listen to the full audio interview HERE.
Catch the trailer HERE.
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