Driving Around America in Elvis’ Rolls
Has there ever been a more mythologized and misrepresented figure in popular culture than Elvis? Seriously, I’ll wait. The summer before I could vote for president for the first time, I was able to vote for which image of him would adorn a U.S. postage stamp. After all, who’s more “American” than Elvis? These days, however, it’s never been more difficult agree on what being American means. In 1971, Hunter Thompson took a road trip through Las Vegas to try to get to the heart of the American dream and found fear and loathing. In 2016, Eugene Jaurecki took Elvis Presley’s Rolls-Royce across the country to explore both the complex legacy of the man himself and the country he changed to make The King.
Are there similarities between the two topics? Of course, but the viewer needs to decide whether there’s a real connection. Jaurecki certainly throws everything he can at the question. But during one the car’s maintenance breaks, The Wire’s David Simon points out that using the foreign-made Rolls as Jaurecki’s chosen metaphor may be a stretch. “It’s him reaching beyond himself. It should have been one of the Cadillacs he gave away. This is like the Vegas Elvis.” Once again, Simon nails it.
Jaurecki does indeed examine the Vegas Elvis. He also does the Memphis, military, movie, ’68 Comeback and pill-addicted Elvises. Greil Marcus, who’s written about Elvis more than anyone, providesthe background history. Ethan Hawke joins the ride as an Elvis superfan, but is still clearheaded enough to blame both Presley and Colonel Parker for The King ending up dead on the toilet seat in 1977. Chuck D said in 1989’s Fight The Power that while Elvis was a hero to most, he never meant shit to him. The Public Enemy frontman, along with CNN’s Van Jones, explores whether or not Presley was straight-out racist. Was Elvis a cultural appropriator? No more so than the Beastie Boys were of PE, Chuck D says. That’s the subject of another Independent Lens documentary, Copyright Criminals, from 2009.
Jaurecki’s movie appeared in limited release last year at the same time that HBO’s The Searcher came out. I found it to not only be superior, but equally as informative. He interviews Jerry Schilling, from Elvis’ original band. Childhood buddy George Klein, who died this week and for whom Presley performed Best Man duties, takes us through his Memphis high school. Linda Thompson, who somehow went from dating Elvis to Bruce Jenner, is also featured. So while “The King” doesn’t have the Presley family (Priscilla) stamp of approval, it’s full of facts and more honest as a result. Mike Myers, with his off-putting shock of white hair, appears to give the “Canadian perspective” on this most American export. Of course, Myers breaks the fourth wall to echo our puzzlement as to why he’s even in the movie.
The King works best when it examines Elvis alongside his myth. When it goes beyond that, it gets murkier. Alec Baldwin rides in the Rolls through Manhattan to assure us that “no matter when the film airs, Trump’s not gonna win.” James Carville, while eating shrimp po’ boys, warns that we have no idea how fucked this country will be if the Democrats lose. But while the parts about the decaying state of America are interesting, the connection to Elvis feels a little tenuous. The tour of his childhood home in Tupelo and the interviews with its current residents work well enough, but may be better suited for another movie. The only way to cover more angles of the Elvis legend would be to bring in Clarence Worley from True Romance. The movie even alludes to the famous Richard Nixon photo.
The one angle/anecdote that the movie misses out on is from the ’68 Comeback Special. While Elvis admittedly kept his feelings on civil rights private, he wasn’t a racist. I don’t think even Chuck D thinks that. Elvis’ one-hour on NBC represented his only time truly free of the Colonel (and those awful movies), who wanted him only to do Christmas music. But Martin Luther King’s assassination, in Memphis no less, occurred months before rehearsals began. The subsequent slaying of Bobby Kennedy left Elvis looking for answers. The closing “If I Can Dream” is widely believed to be his tribute to both men, yet reference to it is absent from the film.
But the movie does an excellent job searching for meaning in Elvis’ life and legend. Look at the cover of London Calling by the Clash. Is it tribute to Elvis’ debut release or a parody? It’s as puzzling as The King himself.
Bruce Springsteen, who even wore an Elvis fan club pin on the cover of Born To Run, famously jumped the fence of Graceland in 1976. The Boss was in the middle of a lawsuit with his manager that was keeping him from recording his followup album. He was at a crossroads in his own life. He didn’t know what he expected after he and Steve Van Zandt landed on the other side of those gates at 3AM, but he’s often remarked on how lucky he was that Elvis was performing in Tahoe at the time. The reality and the myth don’t always match up, especially for Elvis in those final years. The King reminds us of that lesson, even without that story included.
Ashton Kutcher, who just put his phone number on the internet in an attempt to “create a connection,” does a surprisingly great job of summing it all up. He tells the camera that he really shouldn’t be as famous as he is based on the work he’s done thus far. But as he gets into Elvis’ Rolls, people shower him with the attention he claims he never asked for. You can tell by his reaction that he’s wondering what kind of a prison Elvis’ fame became. That’s the big question. When The King gets us closest to the answer is when it’s at its best.