American Dreams

American Dreams

Eugene Jarecki is the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, a two-time winner of both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Peabody Award for Why We Fight (2005) and The House I Live In (2012). He returns with The King, a documentary about America viewed through the prism of Elvis Presley. Travelling the country in Elvis’ 1963 Silver Rolls-Royce, he interviews actors, musicians and public figures as they comment on both the King of Rock’n’Roll and the changes American has undergone.

ASFF: What made you want to look at America through a documentary about Elvis Presley?
EJ: I noticed this incredible metaphoric echo between Elvis and America. After a few moments, honestly, how could you talk about America through any other lens? It was this prismatic refraction of so much about ourselves. The more I explored the metaphor, the more expansive it became and the more parts of American life it took on.

ASFF: Can you expand on that?
EJ: We rose like Elvis. We exploded on the scene as he did, as a country. We shook off the cobwebs of everything that came before, as he did, and became so powerful so fast that we were too powerful too fast, in a sense. What came with that was all of the wages of power. All of the undertow of premature power that struck Elvis struck us and, like Elvis, we reached out for all manner of quick fix: consumption, materialism, addiction.

ASFF: You made this during the US election year. Did you consider interviewing Donald Trump?
EJ: We had an opportunity at one point to put Trump in the car, and we chose not to. I actually wanted to keep Trump quite far away from all that I was looking at with Elvis. Trump has nothing to do with Elvis. Trump is a reflection of the very same forces of power and money that are degrading America and that degraded Elvis. The American people and Elvis are metaphorically connected. Trump is more closely connected to [his manager] Colonel Parker, who pursed profit at all costs.

ASFF: Chuck D is particularly illuminating, speaking about Public Enemy’s Fight The Power with its lyrics about Elvis. What did you make of him?
EJ: Chuck D is a national treasure. I think Chuck D is very careful and very measured as a person. He’s a profoundly complex intellectual who has far more to say than was every said in any one song. And I think he was initially cautious and then welcomed the opportunity to actually explore with people the far larger vision in his brain that is hinted at in that song.

ASFF: How did you find using Elvis’ Rolls-Royce as your base for the film?
EJ: We took it for 12,000 miles of driving. The best and the worst of making the film was all about that car. It’s both the most majestic expression of some of the prevailing dramatic motivations of the film, and also our worst nightmare. To take a car of that age on a vast road trip and then outfit it with cameras, and to try to drive through four seasons of all weather [was tough].

The King opens in cinemas on 24 August. For more details, click here.

James Mottram

1. Still from The King. Courtesy of Dogwoof.